The Peril of Being a Black Inventor in the Old South
Some fire departments cared more that Garrett Morgan was black than that his invention—the gas mask—could save firefighters' lives.
In October 1914, the New Orleans Times-Picayune sent a reporter to a roadshow that included the National Safety Device Company's demonstration of its "safety hood." That demonstration involved setting a fire inside a tent, and having a man in that "safety hood"—described as "a big canvas affair that had the appearance of a diver's helmet"—hang out inside. But the man in the hood wasn't just any old man. Here's how the Picayune described the whole thing:
A canvas tent, close flapped and secure was erected and inside the tent a fire started…Fitting a big canvas affair that had the appearance of a diver's helmet on the head of "Big Chief" Mason, a full-blooded Indian from the Walpole Reservation, Canada, [Charles P. Salan, Cleveland's former public works director] sent the Indian under the flaps into the smoke filled tent. The smoke was thick enough to strangle an elephant, but Mason lingered around in the suffocating atmosphere for a full twenty minutes. He came out of the tent 'as good as new'…
There was a bit of obfuscation going on in this demonstration. Not with the smoke—that was very real—or the safety hood, which worked quite well, but with the identity of the tester. "Big Chief" Mason, it's now agreed by historians, was actually the device's inventor, Garrett Morgan.
Born in 1877 in Kentucky, Morgan was not exactly a chief. He had two black grandparents—one on his mother's side and one on his father's—one Native American grandparent, and one grandparent who served as a colonel in the Confederate Army. With that background, in the South, he could easily pass as an "Indian chief." But he couldn't pass as the inventor of one of the best gas masks created up until that point. Even after fire departments across the country started adopting Morgan's mask, some stations in the South would change their minds about using it after discovering its inventor was not white.
When he could, Morgan would take credit for his invention. It was a relatively simple idea: A sack, with two eyepieces, went over a person's head, and two tubes reached down from the mask to the floor, where the air would be clear. A sponge filtered out soot from that air.
It worked well enough that in 1916, Morgan, his brother, and two other men were able to rescue men trapped in a tunnel under Lake Erie. The carbon monoxide that filled the tunnel after an explosion had derailed two earlier rescue attempts; Morgan's masks made the third one successful.
Morgan would be hidden from this story too, though—and not by choice. His name wouldn't appear in media accounts, many of which referred nebulously to a "third rescue team," or in the city's official report on the accident. Performing as "Big Chief" Mason had been Morgan's own choice, if, presumably, one dictated by circumstances. This newspaper account was not, and Morgan and his allies fought for years until the city recognized his contribution.
Today, the gas mask is part of every firefighter's uniform, and has saved not only thousands of firefighters, but the thousands of people they have been able to retrieve from burning buildings, thanks to the device.