The automotive industry has been almost unrecognizable since its inception in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Automakers recently launched the self-driving vehicle, which features steering, braking and acceleration automatic; Parallel Park Assist, which displays an overhead view of your vehicle and its parking space; reversing cameras, which help drivers avoid rear-end collisions; and integrated GPS systems.
So much of this progress would not have been possible without the achievements of black Americans in science and engineering. And yet, the contributions of black engineers, designers, and innovators have not always been duly recognized. Historically, the patent process in the United States has favored white Americans, and sometimes black inventors have been unable to obtain patents. Despite a variety of hurdles to overcome, black innovators have driven to create some of the automotive industry’s most important innovations, many of which have contributed to the industry’s most recent advances. Bankrate examines some of the notable black inventors whose work helped set the stage for the technology we all enjoy today.
george washington carver
George Washington Carver was born into slavery on a farm in Missouri in 1865. Despite his difficult beginnings, Carver became the first black student and faculty member at Iowa State Agricultural College. Later, Carver accepted a position at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, one of the first African-American colleges in the United States. During World War I, Carver invented hundreds of industrial products from agricultural raw materials like peanuts, soybeans, and sweet potatoes. These products included inks, dyes, wood stains, linoleum, flour, milk and medicinal oils.
Carver was a close friend of Henry Ford of the Ford Motor Company, and in 1942 Carver visited Ford in Dearborn, Michigan to work on several agricultural and industrial projects. World War II military needs created shortages of raw materials, including rubber, for use in the private economy. Carver, using his extensive knowledge of botany, created a synthetic rubber made from sweet potatoes. The innovation of synthetic rubber has been significant for the automotive industry. Today, more than two-thirds of the rubber used for manufacturing is synthetically created, rather than organically harvested.
A Michigan State University study found that between 1976 and 2008, black inventors were granted just six patents per 1 million people, compared to 235 patents per 1 million of all inventors in the United States. And in the early 1900s and before, black people were often prohibited from applying for patents.
As the son of two previously enslaved people, black inventor Garrett Morgan had to contend with this historically unequal patent system. But these systemic hurdles didn’t stop Morgan from filing and obtaining a patent for the first three-bulb brake light.
Morgan owned a successful clothing store and a black newspaper in Cleveland, and earned enough money to own a vehicle at a time when many people still used bicycles, horses, and carriages.
He noticed that the streets were crowded with various means of transportation and the traffic lights were primitive, simply displaying the words “Stop” or “Go” with no transition between the two. Since these signs did not advise drivers to slow down before the “Stop” signal, accidents were common. This chaos inspired Morgan to invent the provisional “All Hold” cue, the predecessor to today’s yellow light.
Morgan was granted a patent for his invention, a T-shaped post with three settings: “Stop”, “All Hold” and “Go”. General Electric then purchased the rights to his invention for $40,000. Today, the iconic red, yellow and green light is an integral part of the driving experience.
Frederick McKinley Jones
Frederick McKinley Jones was born in 1893, nearly 20 years before refrigerators were commonplace in the United States. He started out as an auto mechanic. During World War I, he used his technical knowledge to aid the United States Army by repairing machinery and other equipment as part of the war effort.
During World War II, Jones created and patented technology to refrigerate freight trucks. This technology was revolutionary because it allowed large trucks to transport perishable goods over long distances. The technology was then used in boats, trains and planes, which increased the availability of food around the world. Suddenly, the United States was able to ship perishable fruits and vegetables to troops overseas. Exotic fruits like pineapples could now be shipped from Latin America and West Africa to the United States. People were no longer restricted to eating only local and seasonal foods. Thanks to refrigerated transport, food from all over the world could be transported without spoiling.
This technology has become one of the cornerstones of the commercial driving and freight industries. Without this technology, the global food trade could not have become the $9 trillion industry it is today. Instead, local foods would have remained siled in local markets.
Throughout Frederick Jones’ lifetime, he was granted over 60 patents and was the first black man elected to the American Society of Refrigeration Engineers. After his death, he won the National Medal of Technology.
McKinley Thompson Jr.
The Bronco is an internationally recognizable vehicle. But did you know that one of the main designers of this iconic SUV, McKinley Thompson Jr., was the first black designer hired at Ford Motor Company?
McKinley Thompson Jr. grew up in Queens, New York, and graduated with a degree in transportation design from the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, California in 1956. After graduating, Thompson was hired as first black designer at Ford Motor Company. He worked on several major design projects, including helping to create the Mustang, Bronco and Thunderbird. These designs have been studied over decades and recognized as some of the most iconic American vehicles of all time. Modern critics note Thompson’s talent for combining beauty and functionality in his designs.
Thompson’s innovations have stood the test of time. His designs were studied by new automotive designers, and new generations of Mustangs and Broncos are still being created and purchased today.
CR Patterson & Sons
Founded in 1915 by Charles Richard Patterson, CR Patterson & Sons was the first and only black-owned automaker of its time. Born in 1833, Patterson escaped slavery in Virginia between 1840 and 1860 and traveled to Ohio where he worked as a coachbuilder. In 1873, Patterson partnered with a white coachbuilder named JP Lowe.
Eventually, Patterson and his son Frederick became the sole owners of the business and renamed it CR Patterson and Sons. Their business was successful, producing 28 different car models and employing between 35 and 50 employees of all races.
When Charles Patterson died in 1910, his son, Frederick, took over the business and began offering automobile repair services. In 1915 the company started producing automobiles and released its first model, called Patterson-Greenfield. The vehicle was priced at $685.
However, back then, to be successful in the automotive industry, companies needed to grow quickly. Small suppliers like CR Patterson & Sons have struggled because auto parts are expensive to buy in small quantities. It was hard to keep up with big car companies like Ford that used assembly lines and bought parts in bulk. CR Patterson & Sons hung on for about two decades before closing in 1939.
Richard Spikes developed automatic gearshifting for automobiles, which he patented in 1932. The invention of automatic gearshifting was instrumental in the mass adoption of automatic vehicles.
Spikes also obtained patents for groundbreaking inventions such as the automatic car wash, automotive directional signals, and automatic transmission. In the 1930s, he sold the rights to his automatic shift and transmission for $100,000. Today, this sum would have a purchasing power of approximately $1.7 million.
Spikes didn’t stop there. In 1962, at the age of 83, he completed the designs for the automatic safety brake. He struggled with poor vision during this time and created a machine that helped blind designers draft their ideas. He was declared legally blind after the completion of the automatic safety brake.
The United States patent system has long discriminated against black innovators. A Harvard University study reported that white Americans are still more than three times more likely to be inventors than black Americans.
Two of the inventors featured above were born into slavery. After the abolition of slavery, previously enslaved people were generally freed without education or money, which limited their ability to become engineers or devote resources to research and experimentation.
Even African Americans who were not directly enslaved were forced to face obstacles such as the Dred Scott Holding, which declared that descendants of enslaved people were not citizens of the United States. Since non-nationals could not apply for a patent in the United States, Dred Scott prevented many black Americans from obtaining a patent.
After Dred Scott’s cancellation, many black Americans still faced discrimination when it came to patent approvals. Nonetheless, these black innovators overcame discrimination and legal barriers to pioneering advances in the automotive industry. Today’s electric vehicles, self-driving cars, advanced safety features and automation would not be possible without the African-American forefathers of the automotive industry.
If you want to learn more about black inventors, designers, and engineers, or are interested in grants for budding inventors, you can check out the following resources: