One of the ironies of the “separate, but equal” era of America was the large number of scientific achievements made by black Americans who often had much less access to education than their white counterparts.
While George Washington Carver may be the most famous to come from that time, black scientists have been credited with much more than discovering 300 different uses for the peanut.
They were responsible for improvements to the telegraph, inventing methods for blood storage, and patenting the first modern stop light.
The gas mask, which was one of the most important inventions used by American soldiers during World War I, is largely thanks to black inventor Garrett Morgan. Morgan’s invention saved numerous American lives; at the same time 80 percent of the black troops brought to France didn’t see combat because of racial prejudice.
Like many other black scientists during this time, Morgan succeeded in spite of limited educational opportunities — he only received a sixth-grade education — and racial prejudice his entire life. Still, Morgan was fortunate because he was able to hire a private tutor.
Between the time he moved to Cleveland, Ohio, in 1895 and 1910, Morgan went from repairing sewing machines to owning several businesses. It was also during this period that his curiosity about the way things work and his ability to fix machinery led him to begin creating inventions of his own.
In 1912, Morgan received his first patent for an invention called the safety hood, which was a precursor to the gas mask.
Before Morgan’s invention, other safety hood devices were largely a failure: they were difficult to put on, were complex, and unreliable. But Morgan’s invention was simple and reliable. Morgan knew that smoke rises above air, so his device included an intake tube long enough to draw air from near the ground. Remaining smoke was then filtered through a wet sponge.
The breathing device sold well with firefighters and rescue workers, but due to the prevailing racial prejudice of the day, Morgan had to hire a white actor to pose as the inventor during presentations of his safety hood.
In 1916, Morgan and his brother gained notoriety when they used the breathing devices to enter a tunnel filled with noxious fumes to save two men caught in a tunnel under Lake Erie after a natural gas explosion. But many refused to acknowledge Morgan’s heroism.
Then in 1917 his device was modified to carry its own air supply and became the standard-issue gas mask in the U.S. Army in World War I.
The 100th anniversary of America’s entrance into World War I will occur in less than two months, and numerous black scientists played an important role in the war effort. Without Garrett Morgan, many thousand more brave souls would have fallen in the fields of France, unable to breathe amidst the haze of mustard gas.