28 Days of Black Excellence

An ongoing series for the entire 28 days of Black History Month that showcases the inventions, the people, and culture that makes people of the African diaspora so excellent.



I never learned how to drive stick, but many people swear by it. A fact that I was embarrassed by for years. Luckily I’m not alone. Only 3% of Americans actually know how to drive manual gear shift. Meanwhile, Europe and Asia have a strong 80%. That number is down from 7% in 2012 and 25% in 1992! Damn Millennials. And, because of this, I think most of us Americans can be thankful to Richard Spikes: the creator of the automatic gear shift.

Born Richard Bowie Spikes on October 2, 1878, he had nine siblings. His birthplace is up for debate. While he was alive, it was believed he hailed from Indian Territory (in what is now Oklahoma). New records suggest he may have been born in either Texas or California. I suppose if you live in either of these states, you can claim him for yourself.

And he came from a talented family, as two of his brothers were famous jazz musicians. The son of a barber, Spikes took up the trade for a short period. That didn’t really work. So, he also managed to be a teacher, a musician, and ultimately a businessman and inventor. Not to mention, he was a talented piano player and violinist. Ultimately, he would have his name on over 20 patents, including a beer tapper, the horizontally swinging barber’s chair, and the billiard cue rack.

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The most important, however, is none other than the automatic gear shift. As you see here, his patent was published on December 6, 1932. Just in time for Christmas. And what a great gift to the world that has been ever since.

The way the automatic gear shift works is rather complex, but an interesting video does a great job of getting into great depth about it, and even though leagues ahead of Mr. Spikes’ original patent, it works in a similar fashion.

In Spikes’ later years, he continued to work as a barber and owned shops in San Francisco, Fresno, and Stockton, California. His eyes began to fail, so his brother, John, whose eyes also began to fail, patented a “visual writing aid” to help those like the two of them navigate at least their way around a paper, pen, and desk. Poor eyesight developed into Glaucoma for Mr. Spikes and his wonderful and gifted eye for creating was lost. He died in 1963, at the ripe age of 84.

Today, we can all let out a sigh of relief for Richard Spikes, his many creations, including the automatic gear shift which has made the lives of so many Americans that much more comfortable. Just another example of black excellence!

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Author

Alex Miller is a freelance writer living in Harlem. His work has appeared in Forbes, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other places.