Profile: Garrett Morgan (1877-1963

Garrett Morgan blazed a trail for African American inventors with his patents, including those for a hair-straightening product, a breathing device, a revamped sewing machine, and an improved traffic signal.

Who Was Garrett Morgan?

With only an elementary school education, Garrett Morgan began his career as a sewing-machine mechanic. He went on to patent several inventions, including an improved sewing machine and traffic signal, a hair-straightening product, and a respiratory device that would later provide the blueprint for WWI gas masks. The inventor died on July 27, 1963, in Cleveland, Ohio.

Early Life

Born in Paris, Kentucky, on March 4, 1877, Garrett Morgan was the seventh of 11 children. His mother, Elizabeth Reed, was of Indian and African descent, and the daughter of a Baptist minister. His father, Sydney, a former slave freed in 1863, was the son of John Hunt Morgan, a Confederate colonel. Garrett Morgan’s mixed-race heritage would play a part in his business dealings as an adult.

When Morgan was in his mid-teens, he moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, to look for work, and found it as a handyman to a wealthy landowner. Although he only completed an elementary school education, Morgan was able to pay for more lessons from a private tutor. But jobs at several sewing-machine factories were to soon capture his imagination and determine his future. Learning the inner workings of the machines and how to fix them, Morgan obtained a patent for an improved sewing machine and opened his own repair business.

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