Today, thoughts about traffic lights, gas masks, and hair
straighteners. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines that
make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
In 1914, a New Orleans paper
reported an advertising demonstration. First, an inky
thick smoke had been created. Then an Indian assistant,
Big Chief Mason, had donned the new Morgan safety hood
and spent twenty minutes in the smoke without ill effect.
What the onlookers didn't know was that "Big Chief Mason"
was, in fact, Garrett Augustus Morgan -- the safety
hood's inventor. Morgan's mother was a freed slave; and,
since his birth in 1877, American racism had steadily
worsened. The only way he could sell the hood was to keep
his black identity quiet. So he demonstrated it in a sort
of cigar-store Indian disguise.
Fortune found Morgan out in 1916 while he was working in
Cleveland. Workers were drilling a new tunnel under Lake
Erie to supply fresh water. When they hit a pocket of
natural gas, it exploded. Workers were trapped,
suffocating in smoke and dust. Someone knew about
Morgan's safety hood and called him in. He and his
brother suited up and repeatedly went into the tunnel.
They saved two lives and recovered four bodies before
officials closed the tunnel to rescue efforts.
Unfortunately, Morgan's race was now exposed, and that
hurt his sales. Still, the gas masks used in WW-I were
derived from Morgan's safety hood.
That was only one Morgan invention. In 1923 he came up
with the device that led to our three-way traffic lights.
He saw that existing mechanical stop-and-go signals were
dangerous, since they had no caution signal to buffer
traffic flow. So he patented a three-armed signal. It
indicated stop and go for traffic in two directions. It
also had a four-way stop for pedestrians. And it had a
signal for moving forward with caution -- the forerunner
of today's yellow light. GE bought his patent for
$40,000, which was a huge sum back then.
In his late years, Morgan was highly honored for his many
contributions. By the age of thirty he'd set up a small
sewing-machine shop where he patented sewing-machine
improvements. Now sewing-machine needles functioned
better when they were polished, and Morgan found, by
chance, that commercial liquid polish would also
straighten hair. He figured out how to make the stuff
into a cream, created his own company, and marketed it.
When I was a child, many African-Americans straightened
their hair so as to better blend into a white landscape.
All of Morgan's other inventions saved lives and
accommodated human need. And hair-straighteners met
another kind of human need in 1910. Morgan did what he
had to do in the worst of times.
And so it is no wonder that he dreamed of celebrating the
hundredth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation on
New Year's day, 1963. Garrett Morgan was still alive in
1963. But America's Emancipation Centennial in Chicago
wasn't held until that August, and Morgan died one month
before it actually took place.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where
we're interested in the way inventive minds work.