Meet Garrett Augustus Morgan. He was born on March 4, 1877, in Paris, Kentucky, to former slaves. Morgan is known as one of America’s most successful African-American inventors.
Morgan didn’t even finish primary school and at the age of 14 moved to Cincinnati looking for a job, and lived there for four years working as a handyman for a rich white landowner. In 1895 he moved to Cleveland, where he would live for the rest of his life.
His first job that he found in Cleveland was sweeping factory floors for just five dollars a week. It was at this job where Morgan learned how to fix the broken down sewing machines, and improved the efficiency of the sewing machine by inventing the belt fastener.
A competitor of his employer hired Morgan as a machinist, where he was the company’s first black machinist. While he worked there he met a white girl named Mary Hasek whom he eventually married and had three sons with.
Morgan was a sharp and brilliant man who went on to invent what we know as a Gas Mask (or as he named the device, “Safety Hood”) in 1912, for which he was awarded gold medals by the Cleveland Citizens Group and the International Association of Fire Engineers, because it protected firefighters from smoke inhalation. He also went on to invent the traffic signal system in 1923. He patented the invention and sold it to General Electric for $40,000. The original prototype of the traffic signal is on display at Smithsonian’s American History Museum and the Safety Hood is on display at Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Both of those devices are still important and lifesaving in societies all over Planet Earth. But you know what really grinds my gears (apologies to Peter Griffin)? The fact that when ignorant keyboard warriors on a Facebook thread say things like, “Big deal. Did he cure cancer?” It made me want to reply with something like, “So tell me, what have YOU invented?”, but someone beat me to it.
Yes, tough guy internet keyboard warrior, it IS a “big deal”. Garrett Morgan’s device has without doubt saved countless lives, everywhere it is in use.
Just think of how “Stone Age” our lives would be without the brilliant minds of people from all cultures, all over the world. The Mesopotamians (present-day Iraq) invented beer. The oldest winery was found in Armenia, dated 4100 BC.
Archaeological remains of the oldest stringed instruments (lyres) were found in ancient Mesopotamia sites. Drums are also attributed to Mesopotamia, where first played by ancient Babylonians and Sumerians around 6,000 BC.
The wheel begat the chariot and ox cart, which lead to the horse-drawn covered wagon, which lead to trains, planes, and automobiles. And so on and so forth, forward through time, many great inventions.
Where there’s a will, there’s a way, and where there’s a need, an invention. And fortunately (most of the time, at least) humanity can and should be thankful for the individuals who have created everything from widgets to machines, lubricants and insulations, etc. ad infinitum.
And while I’m at it, let’s give a shout out to the unsung tradesman and factory workers who build and manufacture these things and so much more, as well as the writers of books and poetry, screenplays and music, not just to the actors and musicians, but everyone behind the scenes as well. Because without all of these individuals throughout the history of time and the present, we would still be hunter-gatherers. These things may not be the “cure for cancer”, but to some people, they are a “big deal”.