Black inventors of the 19th and 20th century faced two major challenges. After successfully inventing a tool or product, they then had to overcome blatant racial discrimination from consumers.
Garrett Morgan, one of the most successful African American inventors, held over five patents including ones for the gas mask and traffic light, according to Harvard’s Business History Review. He put a lot of effort into marketing and advertising his inventions and learned if he wanted them to garner success, he had to distance his identity from his invention in his advertisements. He used a public sponsor and surrogate to obtain his patents’ anonymously thus minimizing the chance of discrimination by consumers and increasing his financial gains.
Morgan was born in 1877 to former slaves and was only formally educated to a sixth grade level. However, he was a natural born entrepreneur with a mind of a scientist. He made his first successful inventions at 16 years old but garnered widespread success in 1914 after the invention of the “safety hood,” known today as the gas mask. Morgan was one of the first inventors to both patent and manufacture his invention, according to Harvard’s Business History Review.
In the early 20th century, African American inventors were only allowed to demonstrate their invention in front of Black audiences on specific days. To reach a larger audience, Morgan made ads in the paper for both Black and white consumers.
He initially marketed the gas mask for firefighters, however, the demand for his masks picked up two years later after the use of his masks saved the lives of workers who were trapped after a gas explosion. The reports of that incident was the first time Morgans’ race was revealed publicly. Moving forward, he strategically used his image when it would benefit his brand.
Morgan applied the same tactics to his next invention, the traffic light. He invented the T-shaped traffic light after seeing dangerous accidents at intersections with drivers and pedestrians. He secured the patent in 1923 and later sold his rights to General Electric, according to Transportation.gov.
Morgan passed away in 1963 after a successful career and perseverance through discrimination and segregation by using strategic marketing.