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No. 146:
Morgan's Gas Mask

Today, some 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 created them.

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 20 minutes in the smoke without ill effect.

What the onlookers didn't know was that "Big Chief Mason" was, in fact, Garrett 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.

But fortune found him out in 1916, when a violent explosion ripped through a 250-foot-deep waterworks tunnel in his home city of Cleveland. Workers were trapped -- suffocating in smoke and dust. Somebody knew about Morgan's safety hood, and he was called in. He suited up and went into the tunnel -- again and again -- carrying people out. He saved lives, but being exposed as black hurt his sales. Still, the gas masks used in WW-I were derived from Morgan's safety hood.

Morgan was no one-machine inventor. In 1923, for example, he came up with a device that led to our three-way traffic lights. He saw that existing mechanical stop-and-go signals were dangerous. They had no caution signal to buffer traffic flow. So he patented a three-armed signal that indicated stop and go in two directions, a 4-way stop for pedestrians, and move forward with caution -- the forerunner of the yellow light. General Electric bought his patent for what was then a huge sum -- $40,000.

In his late years, Morgan was highly honored for his contributions. But his first invention troubles me. When he was only 30, he set up a small sewing-machine shop. Sewing-machine needles functioned better when they were polished; and Morgan found -- by chance -- that commercial liquid polish would also straighten hair. Morgan figured out how to make the stuff into a cream. He created his own company, and he marketed it.

When I was a child, many blacks were still straightening their hair. It helped them blend into a white landscape. Morgan's other inventions saved lives and accommodated human need. The sad fact is that in 1910 hair-straighteners also met a human need. Morgan, after all, did what he had to do in the worst of times. But it's no wonder he dreamed of celebrating the hundredth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation -- New Year's day, 1963. This remarkable and inventive man was still alive in 1963; but America's Emancipation Centennial was held that August, in Chicago. Morgan died a month before it took place.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Hayden, R.C., Black American Inventors. Reading, MA: Addison Wesley Publishing Company, 1972.

This episode has been greatly revised as Episode 1624.