March 4, 2010

Happy Birthday, Garrett Morgan

Born on this date in 1877, Morgan was an African-American inventor and hero. After
hearing about a horrifying industrial fire, Morgan developed a respiratory protective hood (kind of like a snorkel for firefighters and rescue workers, it is sometimes referred to as a gas mask). He also invented one version of a traffic light, a hair-straightening preparation, and much more.

Morgan's parents were former slaves, and his family lived in Kentucky. When he had to leave school in order to work, Morgan moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, to find opportunities. He also paid for tutors so he could
continue his education on his own.

In 1895 he moved to Cleveland. He was so good at repairing machines that he was soon able to open his own sewing machine repair shop and shoe repair shop. He added a tailoring shop and eventually a newspaper business. All along, he invented things to make his work better or easier. His safety hood was one of his most successful inventions, which he was able to sell all over the country.

Besides for being intelligent, creative and hard working, there were two unusual reasons
for Morgan's success:
1) In order to sell his protective hood, he often had a white partner take credit as the inventor. When Morgan himself had to make the pitch, he pretended to be “Big Chief Mason” from the Walpole Island Indian Reservation in Canada. It's definitely sad when you have to pretend to be someone you're not!
2) Morgan was able to use his invention to help save some men from a 1916 tunnel explosion in the Cleveland waterworks, more than 200 feet under Lake Erie. He and a team of volunteers put on the protective hoods and then began to carry the injured workers up and out of danger, as well as to recover the dead bodies. This heroic rescue (pictured here, above right) got nationwide coverage, orders for the gas mask poured in from fire departments around the country, and Morgan won several medals and awards for bravery.
How do you know what's true?

The Black Inventors website has nice biography about Morgan. In particular, read the part about Morgan's patented traffic signal.

The Inventing History website argues that the often-repeated “fact” that “Garrett Morgan invented the traffic signal” is over-simplified to the point of being just plain wrong.

I checked several other websites. Many of them repeat the Black Inventors' information about Morgan's traffic signal, including that he sold his idea to General Electric for the staggering (then) sum of $40,000. But Wikipedia reports: “Another piece of popular lore is that Morgan sold his invention to the General Electric Company for $40,000 - a huge sum by the standards of the day. Because no records of this very large transaction have been discovered, it is likely untrue.”

So, which information is correct? And how can we tell?

One thing that tipped me off that some of the articles I read had errors was that they included details that were clearly wrong.
I found a website that shows an actual Morgan traffic signal as well as copies of the patent application, complete with technical drawings. Note that the traffic signal doesn't have round green, yellow and red lights, but rather the words “STOP” and “GO.” (The three positions possible are STOP, GO, and ALL STOP. There is no “yellow light.”) Also note that it is T-shaped. According to the description, it is a “manually operated illuminated traffic signal." Finally, you should know that there were many other traffic signal devices in operation and patented at the time of Morgan's invention.

Now notice what many other websites say:
GARRETT MORGAN: Inventor of the Gas Mask and Traffic Signal”...“Many modern day traffic signals still incorporate the features of Morgan's early invention.”

"Garrett Morgan, an inventor with a fifth-grade education and the first African-American in Cleveland to own a car, invents the electric, automatic traffic light."

"Morgan saw the need for a three-step signal with an 'amber light' stage..."

"Today, our roads are orderly and less dangerous thanks to traffic lights that come from Morgan’s original idea."
Did you notice the inaccuracies?

(By the way, I wasn't persuaded one way or the other about that $40,000 payment by G.E.—I'm going to remain agnostic on that one.)

One problem with the Internet is that, once one site states something in error, other people building other websites tend to quote it as if it were fact. (I'm sure I've done it, too. I try hard to recheck things, but...)

So... don't believe everything you read!

Fire Safety

Obviously, we should all have working smoke detectors (in the garage, too!), keep our dryer vents clean and our electronic devices dusted, handle electricity and cooking appliances carefully, and have a plan of evacuation ready. There is a huge list of fire safety tips here.

Morgan's safety hood dealt with protecting rescuers' breathing during a fire or other disaster. If you don't have one of Morgan's snorkel-type devices handy when dealing with a fire, remember that crawling or staying low can be safer than being upright because smoke and poisonous gases rise with the heat. Also, you can put a damp cloth over your nose and mouth to make it easier to breathe.

Make It Better

Most inventors don't come up with completely new ideas, but instead take others' ideas and make them better (cheaper, longer lasting, more beautiful, bigger, smaller, and so forth).

How can you make today's modern traffic lights better?

How can you make it easier for blind pedestrians to use traffic lights?
Can traffic lights help ease traffic congestion?

Can traffic lights help catch people who break rules or laws?

Is there some way to prevent people from running red lights?
Look around you. What else do you see that needs improving?

If you could reinvent the iPod, what features would it have?
How about your cell phone? A stapler? A car? Mechanical pencils? A bike?

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