Wednesday, August 2, 2023

The Invention of Gas Masks

Blogger: Amber Lemus

Garrett A. Morgan
Public Domain

In April, we learned about a man who helped invent the stoplights that we know today. ( You can read that post here.) His name is Garrett A. Morgan, and we are revisiting this amazing inventor today because another of his inventions bears a story worth telling.

Our story begins in Cleveland during the post civil-war era. The industrial boom led to pollution of the Cuyahoga River, which had been the city's primary source of drinking water. In response to the issue of tainted water, the city began construction of water tunnels that would draw water from old riverbeds further away, where hopefully the water was untainted. The city ended up constructing multiple tunnels, each one longer, and larger in diameter than the last. The construction on the fourth tunnel began in March of 1914.

Tunnel construction was dangerous business. While building the third tunnel, more than thirty three workers had lost their lives in four separate accidents. The fourth tunnel, however, started off great. Initially, safety standards were lauded, and two years passed without major incident. However, on the evening of July 24, 1916, a foreman led his crew of eight men down into crib number five. A natural gas leak somehow ignited, causing a massive explosion and trapping the crew hundreds of feet below the surface, buried in debris and mud.

Rescue crews were formed and sent down, but that didn't go well. The first two attempts ended with 10 additional deaths due to the inhalation of gas inside the tunnel. Several additional efforts were made, but they were only able to rescue one of two members of the second rescue team that had fallen unconscious in the tunnel.

Garrett Morgan demonstrates his invention.
Source: Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections

Someone remembered Garrett Morgan, an inventor and entrepreneur there in Cleveland, who had designed a device he called a safety hood and smoke protector. They called for Garrett, and he and his brother Frank bravely volunteered to go down in the tunnel, equipped with his invention which later became known as the gas mask. Garrett, his brother, and their crew were able to rescue two men, and recover four bodies. However, they were prevented from further rescue missions because the US Bureau of Mines put a stop to the efforts.

Eventually, all the bodies were recovered, but it was a tragedy that overshadowed the city of Cleveland for decades. Investigations were launched, with fingers pointing in every direction. When fault was directed at city officials, suddenly the investigations came to a halt, and it was concluded that it was no one's fault, but every man did what they thought was best. 

Public Domain

Garrett had personally made four trips into the tunnel, which affected his health for years to come, despite the use of the mask. Garrett's mask design was simple; a cotton hood with two hoses that hung down to the floor. Moist sponges would then filter the less-toxic air closer to the ground. It did not, however, filter out all of the fumes.

Despite Morgan's essential role in the rescue, Harry L. Davis, who was the mayor at the time, failed to put his name, or his brother's, on the list of men recognized as heroes. Many of the men who participated in the rescue efforts received the Carnegie medal for their bravery, but he and his brother were excluded from that honor by city officials. Garrett believed his race was the reason for this, which was confirmed by Victor M. Sincere of the Bailey Company in his statement to the committee.

"Your deed should serve to help break down the shafts of prejudice with which you struggle. And is sure to be the beacon of light for those that follow you in the battles of life."
-Victor M. Sincere in a statement to the Citizens Award Committee.


 Later on, in 1917, citizens of Cleveland awarded Garrett a diamond-studded gold medal in an effort to correct this omission. 

The one good thing that came out of the incident was the publicity for Morgan's gas mask. His company received orders from all over the country for the hoods. However, the national news that covered the story included a photo of Garrett. When the officials in a number of southern cities saw his photo, they cancelled their orders. Nevertheless, Garrett Morgan went on to become a successful entrepreneur and an advocate of civil rights. Many have recognized and honored him and his accomplishments by placing his name on schools, and granting awards and honorary memberships. He was inducted into the Inventor's Hall of Fame in 2005.

As for his life-saving invention, gas masks were further developed to be much safer. They now have the ability to protect the wearer for many types of toxins, including pesticides, fumes from paint or other materials, and even chemical weapons. To try to number the lives saved by this apparatus (derivatives were used in both World Wars) would be impossible.


Two-time winner of the Christian Indie Award for historical fiction, Amber Lemus inspires hearts through enthralling tales She has a passion for travel, history, books and her Savior. This combination results in what her readers call "historical fiction at its finest".

She lives near the Ozarks in her "casita" with her prince charming. Between enjoying life as a boy mom, and spinning stories out of soap bubbles, Amber loves to connect with readers and hang out on Goodreads with other bookish peoples.

Amber is a proud member of the American Christian Fiction Writers Association. Visit her online at and download a FREE story by subscribing to her Newsletter!

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for your post today. Garrett Morgan's story deserves to be told!