Affinity and Beyond – Episode 12

Brianna had always been fascinated by inventions. Virtually every day she would be curious about how some product came about. Responding to her work with Henry Jacobs, she became even more fascinated with the origins of the inventor’s talent. It was the anniversary of 9/11 and she became fascinated with face masks used in hazardous environments. That’s when she discovered Garrett Morgan.

Garrett Morgan was born in an African American community in 1877. Both of his parents were freed slaves. Garrett completed schooling up through the sixth grade but had to go to work when he was 14.

Garrett had an exceptional talent in understanding how things work. Early on he started inventing things. He received his first patent when he was 35. His initial innovations focused on sewing machines since he had done a lot of repairs on them. One of his inventions was a liquid used on sewing needles to prevent burning of fabric. By accident, he discovered that the liquid could also straighten hair. He created a hair             products company to employ this and other inventions with a focus on African American hair styles. The incredible success of this company allowed Garrett to pursue other inventions.

Perhaps the most impactful product that Garrett invented was a hood that firefighters could wear when they needed to enter a smoke-filled area. Firefighters faced the risk of smoke related deaths or brain injuries. The device that Garrett developed was far superior to anything in existence at the time. Despite the superiority of Garrett’s invention, he still faced resistance from fire departments because the device was invented by an African American. Garrett had to hire a white actor to become the spokesman for his company.

When the U.S. entered World War I, the Army would not accept the devices produced by Garrett’s company and chose instead a British device. The military did not believe that soldiers would use a mask invented by an African American. What led to its acceptance was an explosion in a tunnel under Lake Erie. Two rescue efforts had failed, and the rescuers died. Garrett was urged to help. He arrived at the scene in his pajamas and entered the tunnel using his hood. He emerged later carrying the trapped worker on his back. Despite his heroism in making four more trips into the tunnel, local newspapers and city officials ignored his efforts.      It took years for true story to come out.

Brianna couldn’t understand why a device that saves lives would be so hard to accept based entirely on the race of the inventor. She began to fully realize the impact of prejudice on the acceptance of one’s talent.

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“Often, the greater our ignorance about something, the greater our resistance to change.”
– Marc Bekoff (Biologist and behavioral ecologist)

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