Gas Mask Sales Plummeted When People Learned Who Invented It

Despite him using it to rescue people from a disaster.
Gas Mask Sales Plummeted When People Learned Who Invented It

In 1912, Garrett Morgan invented a mask that let people breathe somewhat safely when walking through fire. We’d call it a kind of gas mask today, or a smoke hood, though it functioned differently from the kind that would later save people during World War I. Morgan’s mask used a hose that dropped to the floor, where the air’s safer, and a sponge to absorb contaminants. He called it a “safety hood.”

He knew he wouldn’t have much luck peddling his invention with himself as the showman. Morgan was Black, and he figured buyers would want to stay away from a Black man’s hood, and even explaining that he had a Confederate general as a grandfather probably still wouldn’t be enough to convince people. So when he toured the country in 1914 demoing the safety hood, he hired a white actor to pose as the inventor.

Morgan still played a major role during the demonstrations. He posed as the inventor’s supposed assistant and was the one who actually wore the mask. He filled a tent with enough smoke to kill a man, entered it with the mask protecting him, spent half an hour there, then emerged safe and well. During these demos, he called himself “Big Chief Mason,” wearing a disguise that would suit a cigar-store Indian

Then came 1916, and an incident known as the Waterworks Tunnel Disaster. Diggers below Cleveland struck a natural gas pocket, which exploded. Rescue parties descended, choked on the gas, and died. Morgan showed up on the scene, wearing one mask and carrying others, and saved two people. 

Some newspaper accounts of the disaster made no mention of Morgan, and he resented this. Then other accounts did mention him and his invention, and this turned out even worse: It now became public knowledge that a Black inventor was behind the safety hood, and in plenty of cities, sales fell sharply after that. 

Still, that wasn’t the end of Morgan’s scientific career. In 1923, he invented a new type of traffic light—really, the forerunner to all of today’s traffic lights—and General Electric paid him a fortune for it. 

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