Morgan’s mask Science

Fighting fire... Morgan's style

U.S. soldiers model international gas mask designs at the Chemical Development Laboratory in Philadelphia in this 1919 handout picture. Features of Morgan's safety hood were used in many of the initial gas masks.   | Photo Credit: HANDOUT

How would you feel if you had to hide while exhibiting something that you created? Worse still, what if someone else stole the limelight for your work? Garrett Morgan was willing to go through all this and more. An African American inventor, Morgan put his inventions above himself so that they would escape the then existing racial prejudices and reach the masses.

Born in the 1870s to parents who were likely former slaves, Morgan’s education did not go past the basic schooling. A keen interest in machines and an entrepreneurial bent, however, more than made up for what he lacked in formal training.

Morgan’s first invention

After starting out as a sewing-machine repairman, he quickly set out on his own with his shop. It was during this time that he accidentally stumbled upon his first invention. Looking to find a chemical which when applied on the needle would reduce friction, Morgan came across a solution that turned the curly hair in the horsehair cloth (that he used to wipe his hand) straight and smooth.

After successfully trying his solution on his neighbour’s dog, Morgan then tested it on his own hair. G.A.Morgan’s Hair Refiner, a hair straightening lotion, was born and with it emerged a whole range of products related to hair.

We saw last week that transistors slowly replaced vacuum tubes once it was established that they were more efficient. In the case of Morgan’s next invention, however, it was not merely enough that they were more efficient in what they did.

How mask works

Having seen firefighters struggling to cope with the suffocating smoke during their duty, Morgan invented a safety hood that would enable them to breathe easily, helping them to save lives and property without harming themselves.


Apart from his hair refiner and safety hood, Morgan is equally famous for one another invention that you see almost everyday in your life.
What is it? Send your answers to with your name, class, school and location. [subject: eye]
On observing that smoke and fume tend to rise during a fire as they were warmer or lighter, Morgan built a hood with a simple mechanism. The hood had two tubes that trailed down to the floor to obtain fresh air. Absorbent material at the end of the tube was moistened before use to cool and filter air. A separate tube with a valve served as the outlet for exhaled air.

Despite the fact that it worked, business didn’t pick up.

During his demonstrations, he hired a white actor to pose as the inventor Morgan, while he dressed up as Big Chief Mason and spent 25 minutes inside a smoke filled tent.

Put to use

It was the Lake Erie Crib Disaster in 1916 that saw the most dramatic use of Morgan’s masks. An explosion on July 25, 1916 meant that workers were trapped in a tunnel that was quickly filled with smoke and gases. Morgan, along with his brother Frank and a few volunteers, ventured into the tunnel with his safety hood and saved many of them.

Racial prejudices

While this incident sparked interest, prompting fire departments, police departments and mining companies to buy these hoods, Morgan’s heroism was ignored due to racial prejudice. While Morgan’s safety hoods found their way into World War I and many of its features were replicated in the gas masks that became standard soldier equipment, it was years before Morgan received the recognition for his work.

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Printable version | Sep 27, 2021 4:47:02 PM |

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