Feb 1, 2023
Four Black Innovators in the Auto Industry
The automobile industry has been shaped by countless inventors, innovators, and engineers, but many early contributions of black inventors are too often overlooked. This Black History Month, we would like to highlight four black inventors and innovators who have made significant contributions to the automobile industry!
1. Richard B. Spikes (1878–1965)
We’ve all been there, behind the wheel, yelling at another driver to use their “blinkah” when they merge across 3 lanes of traffic without looking. We have Richard B. Spikes to thank for that! No, not the inconsiderate driver–the existence of the turn signal! Originally installed on a Pierce-Arrow motorcar, Richard Spikes is credited with the invention of the first automobile signaling system, although there is no official record of this patent remaining.
Additionally, Spikes has three other automotive-related patents under his belt. He invented a brake testing machine in 1921, an improved gear shift transmission system in 1932, and an automatic brake safety system in 1962 (at the age of 64!) that is still used today in some buses.
2. Garrett Morgan (1877–1963)
Garrett Morgan was an Ohio inventor and businessman who made significant contributions to the field of transportation. Morgan was the first black man to own a car in Cleveland, Ohio, and he actually developed a friction drive clutch while working on his vehicle to keep his mechanical skills sharp. Morgan’s largest contribution to the automobile industry, however, is only tangentially related–the modern traffic signal!
After witnessing a particularly devastating accident, Morgan designed and patented a traffic signal that incorporated what we now know as a yellow light, a warning that the signal is about to change. Morgan eventually sold the rights to this invention to General Electric for $40,000 in 1923 ($684,573 in 2023 dollars).
3. C.R. Patterson (1833–1910), Frederick Patterson (1871–1932)
Born a slave in 1833, Charles R. “Rich” Patterson escaped slavery via the Underground Railroad and settled in Ohio where he worked for a carriage maker. In 1873 he then co-founded his own successful carriage business, which became C.R. Patterson & Sons Co in 1893. The elder Patterson was awarded many carriage patents before his death in 1910.
After his father’s passing, his eldest son, Frederick, took the company reigns. Frederick began to take notice of the influx of “horseless carriages” on the road, which led him to pivot the family carriage business to become the first black-owned automobile manufacturer. The first vehicles rolled off the assembly line in 1915, sold for $850 ($24,629 in 2023 dollars), and were said to rival Ford’s in terms of quality. Unfortunately, in an age of increased production and mechanization by rival companies, C.R. Patterson & Sons Co. could not compete and closed its doors in 1939.
4. George Washington Carver (~1864–1943)
While George Washington Carver’s contributions to modern society aren’t often overlooked, his contributions to the auto industry often are! Carver was a renowned agricultural chemist and scientist who developed over 100 products in his lifetime, including alternative fuels and lubricants that could be used in automobiles. But, did you know that Henry Ford and George Washington Carver worked together in 1942 as a result of World War II?
Ford made multiple trips to Carver’s Tuskegee, Alabama residence in failed attempts to get him to return with him to Dearborn, MI to work together. Eventually, Carver agreed, and he and Ford would establish a lab, experimenting with many crops with the goal to create a synthetic tire rubber to combat wartime shortages. This rubber substitute was eventually derived by Carver from goldenrod!
While absolutely not a comprehensive list, we hope you’ve enjoyed learning a bit more about some perhaps unsung contributions to the automobile industry this Black History Month! To learn more about Black History Month, find virtual events, galleries, and more, please visit blackhistorymonth.gov. We also encourage readers to find Black History Month events in your area to attend and participate in.
Until next time… We’re Always Here To Get You There®
About Sullivan Tire and Auto Service:
Headquartered in Norwell, MA, Sullivan Tire and Auto Service is New England’s home for automotive and commercial truck care with 78 retail locations; 17 commercial truck centers; 14 wholesale satellite locations; two truck tire retread plants; two LiftWorks facilities; and three distribution centers. The foundation on which Robert J. Sullivan started Sullivan Tire in 1955 was, “Treat everyone, customers and fellow employees, as you would a member of your family,” and that tradition continues today. Sullivan Tire continues to grow with more than 1,200 employees and locations in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Maine. For more information on Sullivan Tire please visit www.sullivantire.com.
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