Over a century after his posthumous presidential pardon, Jack Johnson is still widely regarded as the greatest boxer of all time. Johnson, the first Black heavyweight champion and out-doors inventor, was more than just punches, uppercuts, and jabs.
Jackson possessed more than just below-the-belt moves. While he had undeniable ring skills, tucked away in the treasure cave of his mind was the idea and technical know-how to invent a better wrench.
Johnson was charged with violating the Mann Act, also known as the White Slave Traffic Act, in 1912. Johnson was found guilty of transporting white women or girls for prostitution or debauchery, which was against the law. An all-white jury determined that when Johnson traveled with his 19-year-old white girlfriend across state lines, he was illegally transporting a woman.
Johnson’s conviction was intended to punish him for his romantic relationships with white women. Johnson had a thing for white women. He married white women several times in addition to his white girlfriends. After several failed arrest attempts, he was apprehended. He lost his title to Jess Willard in 1915. He was imprisoned for a year.
While imprisoned in Kansas, he invented an improved wrench and received a patent for it in 1922. Johnson’s wrench became known as the “monkey wrench,” and the term “monkey” has become a point of contention as Black people take offense at the racially derogatory slur that is frequently used against them. Others, however, claim that the association of the word “monkey” with the wrench had nothing to do with Johnson’s race.
The term “monkey wrench” first appears in E.S. Dane’s “Peter Stubs & Lancashire Hand Tool Industry” catalogue in 1807, according to the American Cowboy Chronicles. In the United Kingdom, the “monkey wrench,” also known as “gas grips,” is adjustable. The term “monkey wrench” refers to the pipe wrench, which is still used by aircraft technicians when dealing with large low torque fasteners.
While it is true that boxer Johnson received a wrench patent while incarcerated, his patent was for improvements to an existing wrench and had nothing to do with a monkey wrench; thus, the claim that it was named “monkey wrench” because Johnson was African American is false.
Johnson made significant improvements to a tool and was rewarded for it with a patent. He was not, in fact, the first to invent the tool. Wrenches had been around a long time before Johnson was born. The first wrench, in fact, was granted a patent in the 1840s, more than 35 years before Johnson was born.
Regardless of the hoax and controversies surrounding Johnson’s invention, the fact that he created something legendary at a time in his life when the stars were not aligning in his favor is undeniable.
Johnson was eventually released in 1921 after serving his one-and-a-day sentence. President Donald Trump granted him a posthumous presidential pardon for his racially motivated conviction 105 years later, in 2018.