1914 — Garrett Morgan patents a gas mask

Although understandably primitive by modern standards, Morgan’s gas mask – or safety hood as he called it – was a considerable improvement in the state of its particular art.

Morgan, a black man in a racist age, had been inspired by reports of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire to create gear that protected the wearer from smoke and other noxious gasses. Although he got his patent, his invention was slow to catch on, and Morgan’s race was probably the major reason why.

His fortunes improved after the safety hood achieved national prominence in 1916, when he and three others used it to save the lives of two men trapped in a tunnel. For this Garrett was awarded a gold Medal of Bravery by prominent citizens of Cleveland, and additional gold medals for bravery from the International Association of Fire Chiefs.

Lack of recognition never held Morgan back – he also patented an early traffic light design, among other creations – but it was not until 1963, shortly before his death, that white America gave him the recognition he deserved.

Referenced in:

Black Man — Stevie Wonder

1923 — Garrett Morgan patents a traffic signal

Garrett Morgan was not the first to invent or patent a traffic signal, but he was the first to invent one that could be changed at a distance, via a mechanical linkage. (He also patented a gas mask.) Morgan was a black man living in Cleveland, Ohio, who was a successfuly businessman and well-liked citizen of his town in a time long before the Civil Rights movement.

No doubt he still suffered from quite a deal of racism, and there’s a certain irony in that his inventions probably saved far more white lives than they did black lives. Morgan is remembered in Cleveland as the first black man there to own a car, and also for his heroic rescue of trapped minors (using his own gas mask invention) in 1916, for which he received awards and acclaim.

Referenced in:

Black Man — Stevie Wonder