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Black History Month: Recognizing the impact Black Inventors have had on the Transportation Industry

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From the three-signal traffic light to the catalytic converter, Black inventors have left a lasting imprint on the transportation industry. In this blog post we will recognize the inventions of five Black inventors who contributed positively to the Transportation Industry. 

Elbert R. Robinson 

Elbert R. Robinson was a resident of Nashville, TN. He made improvements to the Electric-Railway Trolleys (Street Cars) in 1893. He was awarded a patent for his design in 1839. At the time, the electric-railway trolley was a popular mode of transportation. Robinson’s design was to improve the trolley wheel, which is a device attached to a pole that is used to collect electric current from overhead wires to drive a trolley bus.  

Garrett Augustus Morgan 

Garrett Augustus Morgan was born on March 4th, 1877 in Claysville, KY. His parents, Sydney Morgan and Elizabeth Reed, were both freed slaves. Morgan attended school up to grade 6 at which point he left Claysville to find work in Cincinnati, OH at age 14. He spent most of his teenage years working for a landowner as a handyman. Using the money he earned from working he hired a tutor to help him continue with his education. In 1895 he moved to Cleveland, OH where he began working as a sewing machine repair man for a clothing manufacturer. The first invention Morgan ever created was the belt fastener for sewing machines. He would go on to open a sewing machine shop, a ladies clothing store and start the Cleveland Association for Colored men in 1908. After growing bored with improving upon the inventions of others, Morgan wanted to start patenting his own inventions. In 1912 he received his first patent for a smoke hood. This invention prompted him to start the National Safety Device Company.  Morgan also had a proclivity for inventing hair care products which included a straightening cream and comb, as well as hair color. As his number of patents in this industry began to grow, he opened the G.A. Morgan Hair Refining Company. In 1922 Morgan witnessed a terrible traffic accident at an intersection. He filed for a patent for a three-position traffic signal that same year that offered a warning to drivers about when the lights were going to change. While his was not the only traffic light system to be invented that involved a warning, he received a patent for his design in 1923.  

Granville Tailer Woods 

Granville Tailer Woods was born on April 23, 1856, in Columbus, OH. He left school when he was 10 years old to find work as his family was living in poverty. He apprenticed in a machine shop where he learned the trades of machinist and blacksmith. In December 1874, Woods moved to Springfield, IL, where he became an engineer at Springfield Iron Works. There is some speculation that he may have attended college from 1876-1878 to study electrical and mechanical engineering; however, this fact has not been confirmed. In his lifetime Woods would receive over 50 patents for his inventions. In 1887, Woods patented a device that would allow communication between train stations and moving trains called the Synchronous Multiplex Railway TelegraphThis invention was a huge success and lead him to open the Woods Electric Company. Woods died of a cerebral hemorrhage in New York on January 30, 1910. He was 53 years old.  

Andrew Jackson Beard 

Andrew Jackson Beard was born in 1849 in Alabama.  He spent the first 15 years of his life working as a slave on a plantation in Woodland, AL before he was emancipated. Beard was married at age 16 and started working as an apple farmer. His work as a farmer led him to his first patent in 1881 for a device that would allow the space between plow plates to be adjusted. He sold that patent for $4000 which would equate roughly to $100,000 US dollars today. In 1887 he received a patent for another a device that would allow the pitch of the blades of both plows and cultivators to be adjusted. In his lifetime Beard would work on railways where he would “couple” rail cars. He lost a leg in a car coupling accident which inspired him to design the “Janney Coupler”. This invention likely saved the lives and limbs of countless railway workers. He sold the rights to his patent for $50,000 (approximately 1.5 million US dollars by today’s standards). US congress enacted the Federal Safety Appliance Act which forced railways to use automatic couplers. There isn’t much known about the life of Andrew Beard between the filing of his last patent application to his death. It has been postulated that he became paralyzed and impoverished in the latter years of his life. He passed away in 1921. He was inducted into the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame in 2006.  

Meredith Charles “Flash” Gourdine 

Meredith Gourdine was born in Newark, NJ on September 26th, 1929. He held a Bachelor of Science degree in Engineering Physics from Cornell University and a Ph.D. in Engineering Physics from The California Institute of Technology (Caltech). For the first two years he spent at Cornell, Gourdine paid his way through school. In his third year he was granted a track and field scholarship to compete in sprints, hurdles and the long jump. He was so good that he was selected to represent the United States in the long jump at the 1952 Summer Olympics where he won a silver medal. In 1964, Gourdine borrowed approximately $200,000 US dollars from his family and friends so he could open the Gourdine Laboratory in Livingston, NJ. In his lifetime, Gourdine would be awarded over 30 patents.  His most successful invention was the Incineraid System that was used to disperse smoke from burning buildings and for dispersing fog at airports. Gourdine’s major contribution to the Transportation Industry was his invention of the Electrogasdynamic Precipitator with Catalytic Reaction (Catalytic Convertor) used to clean exhaust fumes of gases and partials that are harmful to the environment. Gourdine lost his sight and a leg to diabetes before passing away on November 20, 1998 from complications due to multiple strokes.  

We hope you will join us in celebrating the works of these five Black inventors who contributed to the betterment of transportation.