This Black History Month, the Mancunion Science Section has decided to find out about a few of the Black scientists we should have heard of.
This week, Amrita Chattopadhyay and Maitrayee Singh learnt more about Garret Morgan…
Garrett Morgan was an African American inventor and entrepreneur from the American Reconstruction Period. Born in 1877 to enslaved parents, he is mostly known today for one remarkable invention: the smoke hood, an ancestor of the modern gas mask.
A man of many interests, Morgan tried his hand at several odd jobs. Alongside the smoke hood, his most prominent inventions included hair care products for African Americans, and the three-position traffic signal.
Morgan was an empathetic man, who noticed a major problem faced by the firefighters in his town. As he watched them attempt to fight fires whilst being engulfed in smoke, he decided to try to invent a product to help them – a smoke hood.
Morgan’s breathing device comprised of a canvas hood; two breathing tubes that hung low, close to the ground; and a wet sponge. Since air filters were not a fully developed concept back in the early 1900s, the two tubes were used to deliver fresh air from below the layer of thick smoke that rose above the ground. The wet sponge was attached to the end of the tubes and was used to filter out the smoke and cool down the incoming air.
Despite all the well-deserved recognition that his invention went on to receive, Morgan faced a considerate amount of racial discrimination during the early stages of the product’s launch.
He received a patent for his invention in 1914, almost half a century after the Thirteenth Amendment brought about the abolition of slavery in the USA. However, the era of segregation that followed had severe long term repercussions on many Black-owned businesses. Morgan was one such businessman who was significantly impacted.
The smoke hood did not gain immediate acceptance amongst its target audience due to the discriminatory practices of consumers. As a result, Morgan had to resort to anonymity, surrogacy, and the use of White actors to advertise the product, to avoid ‘tarnishing’ the image of his invention with his race.
It wasn’t until 1916, when an underground tunnel accident involved an explosion in a water crib, that the use of his smoke hood was required to rescue the miners from the scene of disaster. This was the first time Morgan was able to put his creation to test. Using the hood, he helped save the lives of several victims, as well as retrieving the bodies of those who perished in the accident.
In 1917, the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission reviewed this heroic act as a nomination for their award. Unfortunately, Morgan was passed over due to his race, and the award was given for a far more minor act of heroism.
He protested against it and asked the committee to reconsider their decision. But he was told that since he had used the gas mask, he had not risked as much as the person who received the award.
Despite this incident, the smoke hood’s use in the explosion instantly popularised the invention, and nearly two years after it was patented, it began to be marketed widely. The device later went on to be reformed into a gas mask, and was extensively used during poison gas attacks in World War I.
It is also popular amongst fire departments around the globe who use it on a regular basis when putting out flames in their line of duty.
This Black History Month, we celebrate repressed and underrepresented Black scientists and inventors like Garrett Morgan. His story reminds us of the many who struggled to fit into our society and achieve the success their merits and devotion deserved.