Jack Johnson

Jack Johnson -- Heavyweight Champion and Inventor of the Wrench

Jack Johnson heavyweight
Bain News Service/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Jack Johnson, the world's first African-American heavyweight champion, patented a wrench on April 18, 1922. He was born John Arthur Johnson on March 31, 1878 in Galveston, Texas.

Johnson’s Boxing Career

Johnson boxed professionally from 1897 through 1928 and in exhibition matches until 1945. He fought 113 fights, winning 79 matches, 44 of them by knockouts. He defeated Canadian Tommy Burns on December 26, 1908 in the World Boxing Championship held in Sydney, Australia. This began a quest to find a "Great White Hope" to defeat him. James Jeffries, a leading white fighter, came out of retirement to answer the challenge.

Johnson won their fight on July 4, 1910. News of Jeffries' defeat ignited numerous incidents of white violence against blacks, but black poet William Waring Cuney captured the exuberant African American reaction in his poem “My Lord, What a Morning.”

O my Lord,
What a morning,
O my Lord,
What a feeling,
When Jack Johnson
Turned Jim Jeffries'
Snow-white face
to the ceiling.

Johnson won the heavyweight title when he knocked out Burns in 1908, and he held onto the title until April 5, 1915 when he was knocked out by Jess Willard in the 26th round of the World Championship fight in Havana. Johnson defended his heavyweight championship three times in Paris before his fight against Jess Willard. He was inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1954, followed by the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990.

Johnson’s Personal Life

Johnson received bad publicity because of his two marriages, both to Caucasian women. Interracial marriages were prohibited in most of America at the time. He was convicted of violating the Mann Act in 1912 when he transported his wife across state lines before their marriage and was sentenced to a year in prison.

Fearing for his safety, Johnson escaped while he was out on appeal. Posing as a member of a black baseball team, he fled to Canada and later to Europe and remained a fugitive for seven years.

The Invention of the Wrench 

In 1920, Johnson decided to return to the U.S. to serve his sentence. It was during this time that he invented the wrench. He needed a tool that would tighten or loosen nuts and bolts. There wasn’t one at the time so he made his own and received a patent for it in 1922.

Johnson’s wrench was unique in that it could be easily taken apart for cleaning or repair and its gripping action was superior to other tools on the market at the time. Johnson is credited with coining the term “wrench.”

Johnson's Later Years

After his release from prison, Jack Johnson's boxing career declined. He worked in vaudeville to make ends meet, even appearing with a trained flea act. He ultimately opened the Cotton Club, a Harlem nightclub. He wrote two memoirs of his life, Mes Combats in 1914, and Jack Johnson in the Ring and Out in 1927.

Johnson died in an automobile accident on June 10, 1946, in Raleigh, North Carolina. He was 68 years old.