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Garrett Morgan, the Prolific Inventor Behind the 3-Phase Traffic Signal

Even if you’ve never heard his name, you’ve likely benefited from Garrett Morgan's most famous invention. In 1923 Morgan patented his three-position traffic signal, a device that revolutionized road safety. His traffic sign was just one of many accomplishments Morgan achieved during his 86-year lifetime. In addition to being a prolific inventor, he also solidified a lasting legacy as a local hero, businessman, and activist, all with only a sixth-grade education.

Garrett Morgan was born in Claysville, Kentucky on March 4, 1877 to parents Eliza Reed Morgan and Sydney Reed Morganboth former slaves. Garrett developed a passion for learning at a young age. Though he would have spent most of the year working on his family's sharecropping farm, Garrett preferred his time at school. Unfortunately, his formal education ended with his graduation from the sixth grade.

Morgan knew there wasn’t much opportunity for him on his parents’ farm in Kentucky, so at the age of 14 he moved north to Cincinnati in search of employment. He found his first job in Ohio working as a handyman for a local landlord. It was at this point that he had the chance to advance his education, and he hired a tutor to improve his grammar skills. While his handyman job was definitely a step up from sharecropping, it still lacked the room for growth and creativity he desired. After four years in Cincinnati, Morgan moved to Cleveland with no place to stay and only 10 cents to his name.

Life in Cleveland was rocky at first. During his first few days, he slept in boxcars in an industrial part of town and searched for work during the day. Even up north, he found that most white people weren’t willing to hire a black man. His first job in the city was sweeping the floors of a dry goods store for $5 a week. From there, he moved on to work as a sewing machine adjuster for women’s clothing manufacturers. This was the first job Morgan had that appealed to his knack for tinkering and problem-solving. He soon became the go-to person whenever a sewing machine was on the fritz, and he even invented new parts for the devices to help them run more smoothly.

This experience gave Morgan the skills he needed to open his own sewing machine sales and repair shop in 1907. A year later, he married a white seamstress by the name of Mary Anne Hasek. (She was Morgan's second wife; he had first married at age 19 and divorced two years later.) Even though his interracial union to Mary Anne wasn’t met warmly by either of their families, his second marriage turned out to be much happier and more successful than his first. Life was good for Morgan: his business was so popular that by 1909 he had enough money to open his own tailoring factory. He purchased a home in Cleveland’s garment district and became the first black man in the city to own a car. Despite all his success, Morgan never stopped thinking of new ways to improve the world around him.

In 1912 he developed his first major invention: the safety hood. As a young man he had witnessed firefighters struggling to breathe in smoke-filled spaces. He noticed that smoke tended to rise, so the device he invented drew and filtered clean air from the ground (or from a bag of clean air) through a long tube and up to a heat-resistant hood around the wearer’s head. After securing a patent for the product in 1914, Morgan took his invention on the road. 

He traveled from state to state demonstrating the device’s effectiveness to various fire departments around the country. It was purchased by over 500 cities in the North, but Morgan had a tougher time selling his safety hood to Southern audiences. He found a way around this by occasionally hiring white actors to pose as the product’s inventor in his place. Morgan was even known to dress up as an Indian chief named "Big Chief Mason" during these demonstrations. After being introduced by the white actor, his character would stand inside a smoke-filled tent for up to 25 minutes at a time. When he finally stepped out unharmed, the crowds were astounded.

His invention garnered even more attention in 1916 following a Cleveland construction catastrophe. A tunnel that was being built 250 feet below Lake Erie collapsed after an explosion, leaving dozens of workers trapped and choked by harmful fumes. The local police were wise enough to call Morgan and request he bring his safety hoods to the site. He arrived at the scene with his brother and they descended into the tunnel along with two other volunteers, all of whom were equipped with the masks. Thanks to his invention, they were able to successfully retrieve workers and bodies from the rubble, but it was one of the white volunteers who had been with him who received all the glory. It was only after years of fighting for proper recognition that Morgan was finally awarded his due accolades from the city. Today, a Cleveland lakefront water treatment plant is named for him.

In the meantime, Morgan's invention was making history overseas. World War I introduced a deadly new type of weapon to the battlefield: toxic gases. Morgan sold his safety hoods to the U.S. Navy, and they were also worn by Army soldiers to protect against chlorine and mustard gas attacks deployed by German forces. Future gas masks manufactured for British and American troops reflected aspects found in Morgan's original design.

The safety hood was just one of several inventions Morgan would develop. While experimenting with solutions to help sewing needles stitch more smoothly, he inadvertently created a chemical hair straightener he dubbed the G.A. Morgan Refining Cream. This opened the door for him to start his own hair care business, whose products included black hair dye for aging men, a hair-pressing comb for women, hair oil, and hair grower. Then, in 1920, Morgan switched gears. He used the money he had earned from his entrepreneurial endeavors to found The Cleveland Call, a newspaper dedicated to reporting events relating to the African American community. The types of stories featured in The Call were often impossible to find in mainstream outlets of the time, and the paper soon became one of the most important black publications in the nation.

Three years later, Garrett Morgan filed the patent for what would become his most influential invention. After witnessing a collision between an automobile and a horse-drawn carriage, Morgan was inspired to devise a more effective traffic signal for busy intersections. The existing models were all manually operated, and they switched abruptly between stop and go without allowing traffic any time to slow down. Morgan solved this issue by introducing a third sign to the mechanism that would signal the transition. When General Electric caught wind of the invention, they offered to buy his patent for $40,000. Knowing that the company could do more for his idea than he had the means to, Morgan sold it. The invention would pave the way for the red-yellow-and-green traffic lights that are used on roads around the world today.

On top of his industrious career as an inventor, Morgan left a vibrant legacy as a social activist and leader in the black community. He helped form the Cleveland Association of Colored Men and established an all-black country club on his farm in Wakeman, Ohio. He also dabbled briefly in politics when he ran for the Cleveland City Council in 1931, but his campaign was unsuccessful.

Even after developing glaucoma in his old age, Morgan didn't stop inventing. He designed a pellet for cigarettes that would automatically extinguish them if a smoker fell asleep, and he invented and patented a de-curling comb at the age of 79. Garrett Morgan died in Cleveland on July 27, 1963 at the age of 86. He is buried in the city's Lakeview Cemetery, among fellow historical heavyweights Eliot Ness, John D. Rockefeller, and president James Garfield.

Additional Sources: Garret Augustus Morgan: Businessman, Inventor, Good Citizen

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Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
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Head Case: What the Only Soft Tissue Dodo Head in Existence Is Teaching Scientists About These Extinct Birds
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock

Of all the recently extinct animals, none seems to excite the imagination quite like the dodo—a fact Mark Carnall has experienced firsthand. As one of two Life Collections Managers at the UK's Oxford University Museum of Natural History, he’s responsible for nearly 150,000 specimens, “basically all the dead animals excluding insects and fossils,” he tells Mental Floss via email. And that includes the only known soft tissue dodo head in existence.

“In the two and a bit years that I’ve been here, there’s been a steady flow of queries about the dodo from researchers, artists, the public, and the media,” he says. “This is the third interview about the dodo this week! It’s definitely one of the most popular specimens I look after.”

The dodo, or Raphus cucullatus, lived only on the island of Mauritius (and surrounding islets) in the Indian Ocean. First described by Vice Admiral Wybrand van Warwijck in 1598, it was extinct less than 100 years later (sailors' tales of the bird, coupled with its rapid extinction, made many doubt that the dodo was a real creature). Historians still debate the extent that humans ate them, but the flightless birds were easy prey for the predators, including rats and pigs, that sailors introduced to the isolated island of Mauritius. Because the dodo went extinct in the 1600s (the actual date is still widely debated), museum specimens are very, very rare. In fact, with the exception of subfossils—the dark skeletons on display at many museums—there are only three other known specimens, according to Carnall, “and one of those is missing.” (The fully feathered dodos you might have seen in museums? They're models, not actual zoological specimens.)

A man standing with a Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird
A subfossil (bone that has not been fully fossilized) Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird in a museum in Wales circa 1938.
Becker, Fox Photos/Getty Images

Since its extinction was confirmed in the 1800s, Raphus cucullatus has been an object of fascination: It’s been painted and drawn, written about and scientifically studied, and unfairly become synonymous with stupidity. Even now, more than 300 years since the last dodo walked the Earth, there’s still so much we don’t know about the bird—and Oxford’s specimen might be our greatest opportunity to unlock the mysteries surrounding how it behaved, how it lived, how it evolved, and how it died.

 
 

To put into context how old the dodo head is, consider this: From the rule of Oliver Cromwell to the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, it has been around—and it’s likely even older than that. Initially an entire bird (how exactly it was preserved is unclear), the specimen belonged to Elias Ashmole, who used his collections to found Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum in 1677. Before that, it belonged to John Tradescant the Elder and his son; a description of the collection from 1656 notes the specimen as “Dodar, from the Island Mauritius; it is not able to flie being so big.”

And that’s where the dodo’s provenance ends—beyond that, no one knows where or when the specimen came from. “Where the Tradescants got the dodo from has been the subject of some speculation,” Carnall says. “A number of live animals were brought back from Mauritius, but it’s not clear if this is one of [those animals].”

Initially, the specimen was just another one of many in the museum’s collections, and in 1755, most of the body was disposed of because of rot. But in the 19th century, when the extinction of the dodo was confirmed, there was suddenly renewed interest in what remained. Carnall writes on the museum’s blog that John Duncan, then the Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, had a number of casts of the head made, which were sent to scientists and institutions like the British Museum and Royal College of Surgeons. Today, those casts—and casts of those casts—can be found around the world. (Carnall is actively trying to track them all down.)

The Oxford University Dodo head with scoleric bone and the skin on one side removed.
The Oxford University Dodo head with skin and sclerotic ring.
© Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History // Used with permission

In the 1840s, Sir Henry Acland, a doctor and teacher, dissected one side of the head to expose its skeleton, leaving the skin attached on the other side, for a book about the bird by Alexander Gordon Melville and H.E. Strickland called The dodo and its kindred; or, The history, affinities, and osteology of the dodo, solitaire, and other extinct birds of the islands Mauritius, Rodriguez and Bourbon. Published in 1848, “[It] brought together all the known accounts and depictions of the dodo,” Carnall says. The Dodo and its kindred further raised the dodo’s profile, and may have been what spurred schoolteacher George Clark to take a team to Mauritius, where they found the subfossil dodo remains that can be seen in many museums today.

Melville and Strickland described Oxford’s specimen—which they believed to be female—as being “in tolerable preservation ... The eyes still remain dried within the sockets, but the corneous extremity of the beak has perished, so that it scarcely exhibits that strongly hooked termination so conspicuous in all the original portraits. The deep transverse grooves are also visible, though less developed than in the paintings.”

Today, the specimen includes the head as well as the sclerotic ring (a bony feature found in the eyes of birds and lizards), a feather (which is mounted on a microscope slide), tissue samples, the foot skeleton, and scales from the foot. “Considering it’s been on display in collections and museums, pest eaten, dissected, sampled and handled by scientists for over 350 years,” Carnall says, “it’s in surprisingly good condition.”

 
 

There’s still much we don’t know about the dodo, and therefore a lot to learn. As the only soft tissue of a dodo known to exist, the head has been studied for centuries, and not always in ways that we would approve of today. “There was quite some consideration about dissecting the skin off of the head by Sir Henry Acland,” Carnall says. “Sadly there have also been some questionable permissions given, such as when [Melville] soaked the head in water to manipulate the skin and feel the bony structure. Excessive handling over the years has no doubt added to the wear of the specimen.”

Today, scientists who want to examine the head have to follow a standard protocol. “The first step is to get in touch with the museum with details about access requirements ... We deal with enquiries about our collections every single day,” Carnall says. “Depending on the study required, we try to mitigate damage and risk to specimens. For destructive sampling—where a tissue sample or bone sample is needed to be removed from the specimen and then destroyed for analysis—we weigh up the potential importance of the research and how it will be shared with the wider community.”

In other words: Do the potential scientific gains outweigh the risk to the specimen? “This,” Carnall says, “can be a tough decision to make.”

The head, which has been examined by evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro and extinction expert Samuel Turvey as well as dodo experts Julian Hume and Jolyon Parish, has been key in many recent discoveries about the bird. “[It] has been used to understand what the dodo would have looked like, what it may have eaten, where it fits in with the bird evolutionary tree, island biogeography and of course, extinction,” Carnall says. In 2011, scientists took measurements from dodo remains—including the Oxford specimen—and revised the size of the bird from the iconic 50 pounder seen in paintings to an animal “similar to that of a large wild turkey.” DNA taken from specimen’s leg bone has shed light on how the dodo came to Mauritius and how it was related to other dodo-like birds on neighboring islands [PDF]. That DNA also revealed that the dodo’s closest living relative is the Nicobar pigeon [PDF].

A nicobar pigeon perched on a bowl of food.
A nicobar pigeon.
iStock

Even with those questions answered, there are a million more that scientists would like to answer about the dodo. “Were there other species—plants, parasites—that depended on the dodo?” Carnall asks. “What was the soft tissue like? ... How and when did the dodo and the related and also extinct Rodrigues solitaire colonize the Mascarene Islands? What were their brains like?”

 
 

Though it’s a rare specimen, and priceless by scientific standards, the dodo head is, in many ways, just like all the rest of the specimens in the museum’s collections. It’s stored in a standard archival quality box with acid-free tissue paper that’s changed regularly. (The box is getting upgraded to something that Carnall says is “slightly schmancier” because “it gets quite a bit of use, more so than the rest of the collection.”) “As for the specific storage, we store it in vault 249 and obviously turn the lasers off during the day,” Carnall jokes. “The passcode for the vault safe is 1234ABCD …”

According to Carnall, even though there are many scientific and cultural reasons why the dodo head is considered important, to him, it isn’t necessarily more important than any of the other 149,999 specimens he’s responsible for.

“Full disclosure: All museum specimens are equally important to collections managers,” he says. “It is a huge honor and a privilege to be responsible for this one particular specimen, but each and every specimen in the collection also has the power to contribute towards our knowledge of the natural world ... This week I was teaching about a species of Greek woodlouse and the molluscs of Oxfordshire. We know next to nothing about these animals—where they live, what they eat, the threats to them, and the predators that rely on them. The same is true of most living species, sadly. But on the upside, there’s so much work to be done!”

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How Promoting Handwashing Got One 19th Century Doctor Institutionalized
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Regardless of how often we actually do it, it's common knowledge that washing our hands before eating, after coughing, and after using the bathroom is good for us. But the connection between handwashing and health wasn't always accepted as fact. As Danielle Bainbridge explains in the PBS web series Origin of Everything, the first doctor to campaign for cleanliness in hospitals was not only shunned by other medical professionals, but ended up in an insane asylum.

Prior to the 19th century, handwashing primarily existed in the context of religious ceremonies and practices. It plays a role in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, and Buddhism in some form or another. But washing up to stop the spread of disease wasn't really a thing for most of history. People weren't aware of germs, so instead of microbes, they blamed illness on everything from demons to bad air.

Then, in 1846, a Hungarian doctor named Ignaz Semmelweis made a breakthrough observation. He noticed that women giving birth with the help of midwives were less likely to die than those treated by doctors. He determined that because doctors were also performing autopsies on victims of puerperal fever (a bacterial infection also known as childbed fever), they were somehow spreading the disease to their other patients. Semmelweis started promoting handwashing and instrument sterilization in his clinic, and the spread of puerperal fever dropped as a result.

Despite the evidence to support his theory, his peers in the medical community weren't keen on the idea of blaming patient deaths on doctors. Partly due to his commitment to the controversial theory, Semmelweis was shunned from his field. He suffered a mental breakdown and ended up in a mental hospital, where he died a few weeks later.

Germ theory did eventually become more mainstream as the century progressed, and washing hands as a way to kill unseen pathogens started gaining popularity. Even so, it wasn't until the 1980s that the CDC released the first official guidelines instructing people on best handwashing practices.

If this story suddenly has you in the mood to practice good hygiene, here's the best way to wash your hands, according to experts.

[h/t Origin of Everything]

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