4 African American Inventors Who Helped Put the World on Wheels

Fun fact: George Washington Carver, the African American inventor everyone has heard of, was friends with Henry Ford. The two men tinkered on early versions of biofuel and synthetic rubber without much success, but they were on the right track. In 1909, Bayer laboratories in Germany developed isoprene, which was the first synthetic rubber. By the late 1970's, ethanol made from corn became an additive to gasoline. The lesser-known names listed below are not as famous, but without them, everybody might still be riding horses to work.

Refinements to automatic transmissions, early designs of iconic brands, school bus prototypes and basic traffic controls were all realized by the minds and hands of African Americans. So let's get into it and give credit where credit is due.

C.R. Patterson (1833-1910)

Charles Richard (C.R.) Patterson escaped slavery in 1861 by traveling on the Underground Railroad to Greenfield, Ohio. He landed a job with a carriage-making company and soon partnered up with J.P. Lowe. In 1893, he bought Lowe out and brought his older son Frederick into the business he christened as C.R. Patterson and Sons. He was awarded patents for various carriage components as he expanded his product line to 28 models.

Patterson died in 1910, but Frederick took over and pioneered the assembly of the company's first horseless carriage – the Patterson Greenfield Automobile, which sold for $685 in 1915. Stiff competition in the car business forced Patterson into specializing in truck bodies that eventually evolved into early-model school buses. The achievements made Patterson the only African American owned and operated carmaker in the U.S. The company closed shop at the end of the Great Depression when the demand for buses plunged. Frederick died in 1932 with none of the vehicles he built still in existence, but his legacy lived on.

Garrett Morgan (1877-1963)

Morgan's parents were slaves to a Confederate general, but it never slowed him down. Morgan was a serial entrepreneur born in Kentucky and had a knack for inventing things (including an early version of the gas mask). Years later, he witnessed a traffic accident and developed a prototype for a three-position traffic control light.

At the time, traffic signals went from “Go" to “Stop" which left no room for error. Morgan's system added a third “Slow" signal, which means he basically invented the yellow light. Morgan was granted a patent for the device in 1923. General Electric liked the idea so much that they paid him $40,000 for the rights. Morgan not only had his hands in the auto industry, but also made a name for himself in the news industry by founding the Cleveland Call in 1920 – one of the first African American newspapers.

 Richard Bowie Spikes (1878-1965)

Spikes was a jack of all trades who worked as a bartender, mechanic and barber. The experience turned into twelve patents that spread across every industry he touched. His creations included a beer tapping system, a milk bottle opener and a horizontal swinging barber chair.

In the automotive realm, he patented an improved gear shift and transmission system that kept the gears constantly meshed, which spurred the advent of automatic transmissions. He also came up with an automatic brake safety system that is still used today on certain bus models. Although Spikes also sometimes gets credited with inventing the turn signal, another patent for a similar device was awarded years earlier to Percy Douglas-Hamilton in 1906 for his design of directional signals. Historians do agree, however, that Spike's version of the device was installed on a Pierce-Arrow in 1913.

McKinley Thompson Jr. (1922-2006)

Inspired as a young man by the streamlined look of a Chrysler DeSoto, Thompson decided he wanted to design cars for a living. After serving in the U.S. Army in World War II, he entered and won a design contest sponsored by Motor Trend Magazine in 1953. His design incorporated the use of a turbine engine and the use of plastic, which was an unusual design choice at the time.

Winners of the contest were awarded a scholarship at the Art Center College of Design. He graduated in 1956 and was hired by the Ford Motor Company. Thompson worked on early versions of the Mustang, Bronco, and eventually his own pet project, the Warrior — a concept for an all-terrain vehicle he designed in 1965. Ford passed on his idea, but the prototype has a permanent home in the Henry Ford Collection.

The geniuses who emerged from slavery and overcame racial prejudice gave the world Mustangs, Broncos and functional automatic transmissions. Thanks to them, the chaos on the streets and highways have been tamed by signals telling everybody where to go and when to stop. African American inventors have been influential in the automotive industry since it was born, and we have no doubt that they will continue to do so in the future.

Last updated February 10, 2022

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