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Going through fire

Kentucky inventor proves the value of his safety device


Today’s firefighters enter a burning building wearing a self-contained breathing apparatus that might also include communications technology and a GPS tracker.

This lifesaving device, and the people who use it, owe a great deal to a legendary Kentucky-born inventor and innovator who developed a new kind of gas mask over 100 years ago and risked his own life to prove it could save others’ lives.

Garrett Morgan was born in Bourbon County in 1877 and from an early age, he had a knack for machinery and design, working on sewing machines and later opening his own repair business.

While living in Ohio in 1914, Morgan patented a breathing apparatus, known as the Safety Hood, after seeing firefighters struggle to work amid heavy smoke. According to a PBS biography of Morgan, the device was essentially “a canvas hood with two tubes. Part of the device held on the back filtered smoke outward, while cooling the air inside.”

The Safety Hood won praise for its design and effectiveness, but selling it proved difficult for Morgan, an African-American, who at one point hired a white actor to serve as the device’s spokesman.

When an explosion caused a collapse at the Cleveland Waterworks Tunnel in 1916, Morgan stepped in with his Safety Hood. According to a 2016 account of the incident from the Cleveland Plain-Dealer:

“Eight volunteers went in to look for the crew, and only three survived. More volunteers would continue searching during the night. Near dawn, Morgan arrived with several of his helmets after a Cleveland policeman who had seen Morgan’s demonstration of the helmets persuaded Cleveland authorities to get in touch with him. Morgan, his brother and two volunteers made four trips to remove men, dead and alive, from the tunnel.”

Morgan’s contribution was omitted from many accounts of the incident at the time, but he eventually sold the Safety Hood to over 500 cities and the U.S. Army. The number of lives it helped save is incalculable, though the Safety Hood may not be Morgan’s greatest contribution to public safety: He also developed the first automatic, three-color traffic signal, one of which is on display at the Smithsonian Institution.

Julie Kemper of the Kentucky Historical Society says, “Garrett Morgan had the kind of innovative spirit that’s always characterized Americans in general and Kentuckians in particular.”

For more on Kentucky rescue pioneer Garrett Morgan and his inventions, watch these  videos:

Smithsonian Channel  

And read more about Morgan, the son of freed slaves, in the PBS’ series “They Made America.” 


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