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Ever wonder what driving would be like without turn signals or the traffic lights? Without great African American inventors, engineers, and scientists, driving probably wouldn’t be what it is today! In celebration of Black History Month, we want to share a few of their exciting stories with you. Stay tuned, because the last story is still developing!

George Washington Carver

You may know him as the man behind the lunchtime staple for students everywhere—the man who invented peanut butter! But, George Washington Carver’s contributions to the landscape of science and technology went much further than this salty-sweet spread.

Born a slave in Missouri during the Civil War, Carver triumphed over his beginnings to become a world famous botanist. He felt that plants were good for much more than food, and could even be re-purposed in things like plastics, paint, and fuels. Apart from inventing hundreds of ways to use peanuts, Carver was a lifelong friend of the automobile mogul Henry T. Ford. The two worked hard to further research in bio-fuels. Together, they even created a rubber substitute from goldenrod, a plant weed. Tires—made out of weeds? Amazing!

Though Carver left few formulas or records for historians to reference notes, he is recognized as making substantial contributions to the bio-fuel industry.

Garrett Morgan

When you’re approaching an intersection and the traffic light turns yellow, you slow to a stop. Why? Because you know the light is going to turn red. The whole process doesn’t sound very exciting, but can you imagine what driving would be like if you never knew when the light was going to change from green to red? Yikes! Traffic would be a mess.

You can thank African American inventor and community leader Garrett Morgan for the yellow traffic signal, says History.com. Before his invention, stoplights switched unpredictably back and forth between green and red. Drivers had little time to react when the signal changed, and as you can imagine, there were plenty of collisions. While sitting in traffic behind one of these collisions, he saw the need for a “warning” position so that drivers would have time to clear the intersection. Thanks to Morgan, roads are safer!

Richard B. Spikes

In most states drivers are required to signal when changing lanes, turning, or leaving a parked position. For most of us, flicking on our turn signal comes second nature. We can thank Richard Spikes, an African American engineer, for this helpful invention. In 1913 he patented the technology for turn signals.

Even after he was deemed legally blind later in his life, Spikes didn’t stop inventing. He created an automotive safety brake in 1962 that was eventually built into school buses nationwide. Not much was known about Spikes’ personal life, but as Black American History notes, he left a long legacy of inventions including the automatic car washer, the beer keg tap, and an automatic shoeshine chair.

William Lark Jr.

One of the most exciting advances in the automotive industry is happening right now, in the office of William Lark Jr. He’s an African American PhD candidate at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the chief designer of a foldable, stackable car—the CityCar.

With this car, he’s looking to revolutionize how people look at public transportation. He and his team of fellow researchers see people using CityCars as they would the subway or bus: you swipe your card or ticket, and you’re off! The cars could be driven as needed and then returned to a public station, much like the bike sharing stations we see cropping up in big cities across the United States. Lark’s car has the potential to reduce traffic congestion, air pollution, and maybe the cost of car insurance! Check out his breakthrough in automotive design in this video!

At Direct Auto & Life Insurance, we’re more than a car insurance company. We’re part of the communities where we serve, work, and live, and we know the automotive industry wouldn’t be what it is today without the great contributions of African American inventors, engineers, and scientists. See how we’re celebrating the contributions of other heroes for Black History Month.


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