Contributions of Blacks to science saved lives

By MURPHY BROWNE

Garrett Augustus Morgan, an African American inventor, received a patent for his invention of the traffic light on November 20, 1923.

Morgan was born on March 4, 1877 in Paris, Kentucky. He was the seventh of Sydney and Elizabeth Morgan’s 11 children and born 12 years after his parents were freed from chattel slavery in the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Patent 1,475,024 was granted to Morgan for the three-way Traffic Signal and the invention of an African American continues to save lives today in the 21st century, more than 80 years later. Morgan was inspired to invent his traffic signal after witnessing a horrendous accident where an automobile and a horse-drawn carriage collided. The horse was so badly injured it had to be euthanized.

In the early 20th century it was common for pedestrians, cyclists, animal drawn vehicles and the recently invented gasoline-powered motor vehicles to share the same streets and roadways causing frequent accidents. Morgan’s invention was used throughout North America as he had his traffic signal patented in Canada and even in Britain. He later sold the patent to General Electric for $40,000.

In August, 1963 the U.S. government awarded Morgan a citation for his invention. Morgan transitioned to be with the ancestors on August 27, 1963, five months after his 86th birthday.

The traffic signal was only one of Morgan’s many inventions for which he received patents. On October 13, 1914 he was granted patent 1,113,675 for his invention of the gas mask. Morgan’s gas mask was used to save the lives of soldiers fighting in Europe during World War I.

The gas mask was also used during a dramatic rescue of workers, including firefighters, on July 25, 1916, when workers building a tunnel in Cleveland, under Lake Erie, hit a pocket of natural gas setting off a series of explosions that ripped through the tunnel. Efforts to rescue the wounded were hampered by smoke, dust and natural gas. Several firefighters and tunnel workers were killed.

Asked to use their gas masks to help rescue the workers, Morgan and his brother went into the tunnel, which was five miles out and 282 feet under Lake Erie, and were able to bring out the wounded and recover the bodies of those who were killed.

The City of Cleveland awarded the Morgan brothers a gold medal for their heroism and use of the life saving invention. After the successful rescue, Morgan received many orders from fire departments, chemists, miners and engineers. Unfortunately, when it was discovered that Morgan was African American, many orders for the device were cancelled.

Morgan’s inventions are a fraction of the inventions of Africans worldwide yet the misconception of Africans only excelling at sports and other entertainment endeavours persists. Even in our community there is a misperception that we do not excel at mathematics and science even though our ancestors built what is now known as the great wall of Zimbabwe (Great Zimbabwe), the pyramids of Egypt and Sudan. Africans were advanced in science before any European entered the continent. The Dogon people of Mali knew about the existence of what the European scientists termed the Sirius B star for thousands of years (approximately 3200 BC) while White scientists (European scientist Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel in 1844 ) began to suspect that the star existed in the 1800s. It was not until 1970 that western scientists saw a photograph of the Sirius B star and conclusively knew of its existence. Mali, West Africa the home of the Dogon has been designated a World Heritage site for its cultural and natural significance but no recognition of the advanced scientific knowledge of the Dogon.

Mali is also the home of the approximately 700,000 manuscripts that remain of the Sankore University that was located in Timbuktu, Mali from the 10th century. The 18,000 manuscripts that have been recovered are now housed in the Ahmed Baba Centre (named after the famous 15th century scholar) and provide a documented history of the skill and knowledge of African mathematicians and scientists who taught astronomy, chemistry, medicine and climatology. Timbuktu was a centre for academics and scholars of religion, literature, mathematics and the sciences during a time when there were no universities in Europe.

During a state visit to Mali, then South African president, Thabo Mbeki, offered assistance to the government of Mali to ensure the preservation of the ancient manuscripts. Following the deterioration of the Sankore University many of the manuscripts had been scattered among numerous libraries and private collections. The two countries (Mali and South Africa) launched a trust fund to preserve the heritage and history of the African continent contained in the 700,000 ancient manuscripts that are known to be scattered across Mali.

In spite of the enslavement of Africans and the subsequent attempt to dehumanize enslaved Africans, their descendants have contributed to science and their inventions have saved lives and contributed to the making of modern society.

There are several books documenting the contributions of African inventors including African American Inventors (Black Stars) by Otha Richard Sullivan and Black Pioneers of Science and Invention by Louis Haber. Our children need to know that it is natural for them to excel at mathematics and science. All our students need to learn this history, not only the students of the Africentric Alternative School.

tiakoma@aol.com

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