| News & Events

Every time you travel down a clean street, take a breath of fresh air, or use public transportation, you should thank an inventor. While you’ve probably grown so accustomed to these luxuries, transportation wouldn’t be the same without inventors and their research. In honor of Black History Month, here are seven ways African American inventors transformed transportation forever.

1. Elbert Robinson refined the electric-railway trolley.

In 1893, Elbert Robinson, a resident of Nashville, TN, received a patent for improvements in trolleys for electric railways. His invention focused primarily on the trolley wheels, implementing a new design to secure wheels to the wire when the trolley rounded curves or went down hills.

2. Charles Brooks invented the first self-propelled street sweepers.

In the days of Charles Brooks, the primary method of transportation resulted in piles of horse manure along the street. As you can imagine, it was not a pleasant-smelling situation. While the horse-drawn street sweeper had already been invented, Brooks wanted to improve it. His design utilized a truck-like frame with revolving brushes that pushed waste into a bin, and he received a patent for his invention in 1896, according to BlackPast.org.

3. Frederick Jones developed refrigeration units for truck and railroad transportation of food.

After running away at the age of 11 to live on his own, Frederick Jones used his spare time between odd jobs to teach himself mechanical and electrical engineering, which would lead him to a life of incredible inventions. In the 1930s, he designed air conditioning for vehicles carrying perishable foods, writes Biography.com. So, you can thank him next time you purchase a frozen pizza or a pint of ice cream at your grocery store!

4. Gladys West’s work moves us closer to modern-day GPS technology.

Gladys West graduated Valedictorian from her high school and went on to receive multiple degrees in mathematics from Virginia State University. Over the next few decades, she helped change technology, according to Encyclopedia Brittanica. She began teaching computers at the U.S. Naval Proving Ground to solve advanced equations. She helped finish the Naval Ordnance Research Calculator. And in 1978, she was put in charge of projects at Seasat, an experimental oceanic satellite surveillance system. Through all the calculations done at Seasat, it became possible to determine the exact shape of the Earth (called a geoid), which paved the way for accurate GPS calculations around the globe. Next time you plug in a destination on your phone, you can thank Gladys West.

5. Garrett Morgan came up with the idea for a three-signal traffic light.

Believe it or not, stoplights instantly went from green to red at one point in time. As you can imagine, this design was a disaster. Nobody knew when they would need to stop as they approached intersections, leading to lots of accidents. Garrett Morgan became an automotive hero when he witnessed one of these crashes and realized drivers need a warning signal between green and red. In 1923, he patented the three-position stoplight, according to History.com, making our roads much safer.

6. Isaac Johnson revolutionized the bicycle frame.

While Isaac Johnson didn’t invent the bicycle, he did transform it forever. Johnson realized there was a better way to design a frame. He believed bicycles should fold or come apart, and he patented this first-of-its-kind frame in 1899, according to Reference.com. His ingenuity allowed people to store their bikes more easily and paved the way for modern bikes that are more space-efficient.

7. Andrew Beard invents the automatic train car coupler.

For many years, train cars had to be connected manually. Railroad workers would stand between cars as they slowly came together and couple them by hand. This scary task resulted in lost fingers and limbs, and many people were crushed by the cars. But Andrew Beard developed a much better way. In 1897, Beard patented an automatic coupler with horizontal jaws that ensured cars would lock together when they came into contact, according to the National Inventors Hall of Fame.