Question of the Month:

Jack Johnson and the Wrench

February 2005

Q:  Did Jack Johnson invent the wrench?

-- Solomon Estes, Houston, Texas

Jack Johnson A:  Jack Johnson, the first Black heavyweight boxing champion, patented a wrench (U.S. patent #1,413,121) on April 18, 1922. His patent was not the first for a wrench. Solymon Merrick of Springfield, Massachusetts, patented the first wrench in 1835. Charles Moncky, a Baltimore mechanic, invented the monkey wrench around 1858. Moncky's wrench was named using a purposeful misspelling of his name. On September 9, 1913, Robert Owen Jr, of Shawnee, Ohio, received a patent for the "Double Acting Wrench" (ratchet wrench), arguably the most important advancement in wrench technology. Daniel C. Stillson, a steamboat firefighter, received a patented on September 13, 1870 for an invention later known as the Stillson pipe wrench.

Jack Johnson, the inventor, represents little more than an interesting historical footnote. He owes his fame and infamy to his boxing exploits and his violation of social norms. Born John Arthur Johnson (1878) in Galveston, Texas, Johnson fought as a youth in battle royals (public fights between 4-12 Blacks for the amusement of White patrons). As a teenager he worked on boats and on Galveston's docks. Johnson began boxing in 1897 and quickly became a skilled fighter. On February 3, 1903 Johnson won the Colored Heavyweight Championship of the World title with a 20-round decision over Denver Ed Martin. This title did not satisfy Johnson; he wanted to become champion of the entire world.

Johnson was an imposing and frightening figure in the ring. His body was chiseled: 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds. He was a skilled counter puncher with devastating punching power. Moreover, he rightly considered himself the world's best boxer and when he was able to fight White fighters he "punished" them. At the beginning of the 20th century most Americans believed that Whites were physically superior to Blacks and the heavyweight champion of the boxing world was considered the epitome of physical strength. Johnson defeated White fighters, taunting them in front of mostly-White audiences. On July 17, 1907 he knocked out former world champion Bob Fitzsimmons in the 2nd round. Tommy Burns, the White champion, tried to avoid fighting Johnson, but the American public demanded that Burns put Johnson "in his place." Burns' reluctance to fight Johnson was eased by a guarantee of a $30,000 paycheck. On December 26, 1908, Johnson and Burns fought in Australia. Johnson severely beat Burns until a police inspector stopped the fight in the fourteenth round.

Johnson's victory was a major blow to Jim Crow. A White champion had been defeated by a so-called Negro. The Jim Crow system was, in effect, a racial hierarchy with Whites at the top and Blacks at the bottom; Whites were considered superior to Blacks in all important ways, including but not limited to intelligence, morality, courage, civilized behavior, and physical strength. Johnson's victory over Burns led many Whites to physically assault innocent Blacks on America's streets. Johnson lived as if the Jim Crow system did not exist. During the Jim Crow period Blacks were sometimes beaten for "talking back" to Whites; yet, Johnson spoke to Whites as if he were an equal -- or a superior. He reveled in his riches and fame. And, at a time when Blacks were imprisoned, even lynched, for flirting with White women, Johnson openly dated White women and married three White women. In 1908 and for at least another decade, Jack Johnson was one of the most hated men in America. He was White America's worse nightmare: a menacing black "brute," profligate, arrogant, immoral, a threat to everything white. Thus, began the search for a "Great White Hope," a White man to defeat the Black menace. James J. Jeffries, a former champion, came out of retirement to fight Johnson, but the fight was a mismatch. Johnson beat him easily on July 4, 1910. Nineteen people were killed in race riots after the fight.

In 1912 Johnson was arrested for violation of the Mann Act, a law often used to prevent Black men from traveling with White women. During the Jim Crow period sexual relations between Black men and White women violated one of the nation's most important taboos. Johnson was charged with transporting Lucille Cameron, his White girlfriend, across state lines for "immoral purposes." Although the two married later that year, he was convicted of violating the Mann Act, a federal offense. The Judge was Kenesaw Mountain Landis who later became famous as a Commissioner of Major League Baseball. While his conviction was being appealed, Johnson fled to Europe to avoid incarceration. Lucille went with him. He remained a champion in exile until he lost on April 5, 1915 to Jess Willard in the 26th round in Havana, Cuba. Johnson claimed in his autobiography that he was promised a pardon if he "threw" the fight. There is a famous photograph of him laying on the mat having been "knocked out" by Willard. Johnson has one arm raised, apparently shielding his eyes from the sun's rays.

Johnson lived on the lam in Spain and Mexico until 1920. Tiring of living abroad, often alone in shanties, he returned to the United States and was sent to Leavenworth Federal Prison in Kansas. While in prison, Johnson conceptualized and diagrammed a tool to help tighten loosening fastening devices. This is the wrench that he patented on April 18, 1922.

Johnson boxed professionally from 1897 to 1928, and boxed in exhibition matches until 1945. During his boxing career, Jack Johnson fought 114 fights, winning 80 matches, 45 by knockouts. He was killed in a car crash while driving to see the Joe Louis-Billy Conn championship fight.

February 2005 response by David Pilgrim, Curator, Jim Crow Museum


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