Every time you stop on red, enjoy clear views of the Olympics or buy a pint of ice cream, you have an inventor to thank. In honor of Black History Month, we’re highlighting some of the African American pioneers who helped transform transportation with their inventions, research, and perseverance.
G. M O R G A N
In 1923 Garrett Morgan patented his three-position traffic signal, significantly increasing safety at intersections. His design included a T-shaped pole with three settings that could be lit at night (like the blinking yellow light we use today), warning drivers to proceed carefully. Before Morgan’s invention traffic signals were manually operated and only switched between Stop and Go without warning, leaving drivers no time to react to the change and contributing to collisions. His automated system with a “warning” position is the ancestor of our modern-day yellow light.
When not busy with life-changing inventions, Morgan also founded a newspaper, The Cleveland Call, which became one of the most important black papers in the country.
M. G O U R D I N E
The world would be a much smoggier place without the catalytic converter, invented by Meredith Gourdine in 1967. His exhaust purification system helps reduce harmful emissions and pollution from vehicles. A Cornell graduate who founded his own research lab, he’s recognized as a pioneer in energy conversion.
And not only that, he was an Olympic Silver Medalist, winning in the broad jump at the 1952 games in Helsinki, Finland!
F. M C K I N L E Y J O N E S
Self-taught in mechanical and electrical engineering, Frederick McKinley Jones received more than 60 patents in his lifetime, including one used for refrigerated trucks. In the 1930s he designed a portable air conditioning unit for trucks carrying perishable food, that went on to be used extensively in WWII to also preserve blood, medicine, and troop supplies. His technology now allows frozen foods (and ice cream!) to be shipped nationwide.
Jones was posthumously awarded the National Medal of Technology in 1991 by President George H.W. Bush, and was the first African American to receive the award.
M. A N G E L O U
Streetcars are synonymous with San Francisco and same goes for Maya Angelou and writing. But did you know that the two have more in common? She was the city’s first female African American streetcar conductor, at just 16. She described her experience working for the Market Street Railway in her book, Mom & Me & Mom, saying she got the job after her mother encouraged her to keep going back until they let her apply. When asked why she wanted to work for the streetcar, Angelou replied “I like the uniforms. I like the people.”
She got the job and the rest is history!