Throughout the month of February, LumAware is celebrating Black History Month by highlighting African-Americans that made their mark in US History. This week, we are featuring the life of Garrett A. Morgan, a prolific inventor and entrepreneur from Cleveland, who developed, among other things, the predecessors of the modern gas mask and traffic signal. 

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Garrett Augustus Morgan was an African-American inventor, businessman, and community leader from Cleveland. He was born on March 4, 1877, in Claysville, Kentucky, to Elizabeth Reed, and Sydney Morgan, both former slaves. Morgan only received education up to sixth grade, and at the age of 14, he moved to Cincinnati in search of employment.

Morgan spent his teenage years working as a handyman for a Cincinnati landowner. In 1895, he moved to Cleveland and began repairing sewing machines for a clothing manufacturer. During this period, he developed his first invention—a belt fastener for sewing machines. 

With his experience, he opened a sewing machine shop in 1907. A year later, he started his work as a community leader and co-founded the Cleveland Association of Colored Men. 

In 1908, he opened Morgan’s Cut Rate Ladies Clothing Store with his wife and sold coats, suits, dresses, and other clothing. He launched the G. A. Morgan Hair Refining Company in 1913 which sold several of his patented inventions including a hair straightening cream, a hair coloring, and a hair straightening comb.

In 1914, he invented a smoke hood design (a predecessor of the gas mask), which he used to rescue workers trapped in a water intake tunnel 50 ft (15 m) beneath Lake Erie. It was patented and awarded a gold medal two years later by the International Association of Fire Chiefs.

After witnessing a serious accident at an intersection, Morgan developed a traffic control device having a third “warning” position in 1922. 

He developed glaucoma later in his life, but despite his poor health, Morgan continued developing inventions. One of his last inventions is a self-extinguishing cigarette that used a plastic pellet filled with water placed just before the filter. He died on July 27, 1963 at the age of 86. 

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