The world watched in awe this month as divers rescued 12 boys and their soccer coach from a flooded cave system in Thailand. While the death of one of the divers serves as a reminder of the difficulty and danger of cave rescues, the incident showcased invention. As authorities made rescue plans, engineers from several companies owned by entrepreneur Elon Musk developed a small submarine to extricate the soccer players.
Although Musk’s miniature submersible was never used, the episode harkens back to Garrett A. Morgan, an African-American inventor whose work aided a dangerous rescue during the early 20th century.
The son of a freed slave, Morgan was born in Paris, Ky., in 1877. After a local education, he moved to Cincinnati, where he ran several businesses. He also became a noted inventor and owned several patents.
Among Morgan’s inventions was a “safety hood,” a breathing device that later evolved into the modern-day gas mask. Morgan personally demonstrated the effectiveness of this apparatus when he rescued victims from a collapsed tunnel in Cleveland, Ohio.
On July 25, 1916, workers were digging a tunnel under Lake Erie as part of a waterworks project. A pocket of gas suddenly exploded, killing dozens of the workers and trapping survivors in the collapsed tunnel, which filled with toxic fumes.
Multiple rescue efforts failed. In several instances, those seeking to save the trapped men also fell victim to the poisonous air.
When authorities learned of Garrett Morgan’s safety hood, they contacted him and he rushed to the site to help. Morgan, along with two of his brothers and a handful of volunteers, donned the hoods and took turns entering the tunnel. Sadly, about 20 men perished in the disaster — but Morgan and the brave men who endured the burning, toxic tunnel saved several others.
Although Morgan eventually received a gold medal for his bravery, because he was African-American he received little credit for his role in the rescue. Of the dozens of period newspaper accounts about the incident, few mentioned Morgan or his invention.
Morgan died in 1963. Among his other inventions was the three-position traffic light. He also founded a newspaper, the Cleveland Call, and established several community organizations.
His legacy also lives on in the modern-day gas mask, a device that has saved the lives of innumerable soldiers, firefighters and rescue workers.
More recently, however, communities have recognized Morgan, his efforts and his innovations. Several years ago, for example, the Garrett A. Morgan Water Treatment Plant in Cleveland was named in his honor.
The Garrett Morgan Elementary School in Lexington also commemorates his memory. According to the school’s website, “Morgan represents the innovation, diligence, and creativity which we will seek to instill and cultivate in all of our students at GME.”
Studying the history of great Kentuckians like Morgan allows us to embrace the inventor’s pioneering spirit and bravery. Digging into our state’s past also allows us to fill the proverbial well of ideas so that invention and creativity can take place. Studying this history can inspire students and show the important legacy that Kentuckians like Morgan have left modern-day Kentuckians.
We should also remember that, because of his race, Morgan’s efforts largely went unrecognized during his lifetime. Therefore, we should continue to commemorate Morgan and other Kentuckians who face great odds yet transform our communities through innovation and good works. Morgan’s history stands as a critical lesson for our future.
Stuart W. Sanders is the Kentucky Historical Society’s history advocate.