The real story of boxer Jack Johnson and his wrench invention

Vanessa Calys-Tagoe November 06, 2022
Jack Johnson invented an improved wrench. Photos: Wiki/Public domain

Over a century after his posthumous presidential pardon, Jack Johnson remains widely famous for being the greatest to ever do it boxing-wise. The first Black heavyweight champion and out-doored inventor, Johnson had more than punches, uppercuts and jabs.

Below-the-belt moves were not the only talents Jackson had. While he possessed undeniable skills for the ring, tucked away in the treasure cave of his mind was the idea and technical know-how to invent an improved wrench.

Johnson was arrested in 1912 for violating the Mann Act, also known as the White Slave Traffic Act. The law made transportation of white women or girls for prostitution or debauchery illegal, and Johnson was found guilty of it. An all-white jury determined that when Johnson made a trip with his 19-year-old white girlfriend, he was illegally carrying a woman across state boundaries.

The conviction was intended to punish Johnson for his romantic affairs with white women. Johnson had a preference for white women. Apart from his white girlfriends, he married white women several times. He was apprehended after several failed arrest attempts. In 1915, he lost his title to Jess Willard. He served a year in jail. 

He developed an enhanced wrench while imprisoned in Kansas and got a patent for it in 1922. Johnson’s wrench became known as the “monkey wrench” and the tag “monkey” has become a debate as Black people take offense at the racially derogatory slur often used on Black people. But, according to others, the attachment of the word “monkey” to the wrench had nothing to do with Johnson being an African-American man.

According to the American Cowboy Chronicles, the term “monkey wrench” can be traced back to 1807 in Great Britain, where it appears in E.S. Dane’s “Peter Stubs & Lancashire Hand Tool Industry” catalogue. The “monkey wrench,” also known as “gas grips” in the United Kingdom, 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 only for improvements to an existing wrench that had nothing to do with a monkey wrench, therefore, the claim that it was named “monkey wrench” because Johnson was an African American is false.

Johnson made great improvements on a tool and received his flowers for it by way of a patent. Indeed, he was not the first inventor of the tool. Wrenches had been in existence for a long time before Johnson was born. In fact, the first wrench was awarded a patent in the 1840s, over 35 years before Johnson was born.

Irrespective of the hoax and controversies surrounding Johnson’s invention, it does not change the fact that he made something legendary at a point in his life when the stars were not aligning in his favor.

Eventually, Johnson was released in 1921 after serving his one-year-and-a-day sentence. 105 years later in 2018, President Donald Trump gave him a posthumous presidential pardon for his racially motivated conviction. 

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