Inventing happens when someone sees a need and tries to find a way to solve it. In this post, Spark!Lab Host Hannah Sherman introduces us to two inventors from the 19th Century whose creations have continued to be useful into the 21st century.

What items are necessities in your life? Below are two African American inventors from the past whose ideas have continued to make life easier for people today.

First, let’s look at Sarah E. Goode, the first African-American woman to hold a patent.

Goode's folding cabinet bed

Photo: Kelly, Kate. “Sarah E. Goode, (ca.1850-1909), Inventor – America Comes Alive.” America Comes Alive. N.p., 08 Feb. 2012. Web. 19 Feb. 2015.

Sarah E. Goode was born into slavery in 1850 in Ohio and was freed at the end of the Civil War. She moved to Chicago, Illinois where she married carpenter Archibald Goode. In Chicago, she opened up a furniture store supplying goods to primarily working-class customers. Her customers would often complain that they had no room for furniture or storage spaces in their small apartments. In order to solve the problem she created a prototype of the Folding Cabinet Bed – which could be used to sleep at night and as a roll-top desk during the day. Goode received her patent in July of 1885.

Having ambition, determination, a strong work ethic and a good business sense is a great recipe for one of the greatest inventors of the late 19th Century – Garrett Morgan. Morgan was a trailblazer of his time, creating four completely different inventions and a large number of businesses.

Garrett Morgan was born in 1877 in Kentucky to former slaves. In 1895 he left Kentucky to pursue better work opportunities in Ohio, having only completed a sixth grade- level education. He found work as a sewing machine repairman at several clothing manufacturing companies. He invented and patented a chemical hair straightener in 1906, he started his own sewing repair shop in 1907, a tailoring shop in 1909, and he created a newspaper company in 1920.

Besides his entrepreneurial adventures, Morgan also developed and patented two very crucial inventions. In

image of Morgan's breathing hood.

“Patent US1090936 – Breathing Device.” Google Books. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Feb. 2015.

1914 Morgan invented a safety hood to protect firefighters and others from noxious fumes. Morgan battled many obstacles trying to sell his invention because of his race. According to some sources, in order to promote his device he hired a white actor to play the part of “the inventor” while he disguised himself as “Big Chief Mason.” As this character he would wear the device into areas with unbreathable air to show that it worked. The safety hood won many awards and honors. Morgan received national attention when he wore his mask to save workers in the Waterworks Tunnel disaster in 1916. At first, the city of Cleveland denied that Morgan was involved in saving these men; however they eventually gave him the credit he deserved in 1963 (the year he passed away). Even the military was interested in the device. Morgan’s invention was the original model of what we now call a gas mask, crucial in protecting soldiers from the noxious gases used during World War I.

Morgan’s contributions to the health and safety of the public did not stop there. After observing many traffic accidents between cars and carriages, Morgan decided that he needed to do something about the dangerous intersections he encountered. In 1923, at the age of 46, Morgan designed and patented a three-way traffic signal to include a warning light, along with stop and go. In the 21st Century we know this “warning light” as the yellow light. Morgan eventually sold the rights to his patent to General Electric Company.

These are just a few of the ways that inventors Goode and Morgan used their ideas to make people’s lives better and safer. Goode’s idea for the cabinet bed was both practical and imaginative because of how it transformed living space. And where would the United States be without the traffic light? Or what would have happened to the soldiers in WWI without the gas mask? One of the best parts of about being a Spark!Lab host is reading about all different kinds of unforgettable inventions and their genius creators.