Granville T. Woods: The Black Edison
A historical profile of Granville T. Woods, an African-American electrical engineer who pioneered many great advancements in transportation and communication.
African American inventor and engineer Granville Tailer Woods, nicknamed the Black Edison, made significant contributions to electrical engineering and transportation during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Born in 1856 in Columbus, Ohio, he began working as a machinist while still a teenager.
Granville Tailer Woods, the Black Edison. Image used courtesy of National Inventors Hall of Fame
Despite limited formal education, Woods developed a strong interest in electricity and mechanics and began experimenting with various devices at a young age. The induction telegraph was the most notable of Woods’ inventions, allowing more efficient communication between trains and railroad stations.
Early Life and Career of Granville Woods
An early engineering pioneer, Woods started his career working at railway stations and as a blacksmith, self-educating himself on electricity. At the time, black people were barred from many libraries. Woods would ask friends to check out library books for him to read. In 1876, he moved to New York City, where he attended night school, receiving a formal education in engineering and electricity.
In 1878, he moved back to Ohio for the summer, where he found a maintenance position at the Springfield, Jackson, and Pomeroy Railroad Company. He then worked as an engineer with the Dayton and Southeastern Railroad Company. At this time, he started to form ideas for his most important invention, the induction telegraph ‒ also known as the multiplex telegraph.
In 1885, Woods began to work on a device he originally called “telegraphony,” which allowed the communication of messages using either voice or Morse code. This invention was purchased by The Bell Company, owned by Alexander Graham Bell, which supported Woods in becoming a full-time inventor.
His development of telegraphony inspired his creation of the induction (multiplex) telegraph. The telegraph used static electricity to transmit messages between trains and stations, allowing communication without needing physical contact. This greatly improved the safety and efficiency of railways, as trains could be easily directed and controlled without connecting and disconnecting lines physically. The invention was quickly adopted by railroad companies and was used extensively throughout the country.
While trying to file a patent for the induction telegraph, Woods found himself in a legal battle with Thomas Edison, who claimed to be the original inventor of the railway telegraph. Edison eventually lost his suit against Woods but offered him an engineering position at Edison Electric Light Company in New York, which Woods declined.
Other Transportation Advances
After receiving his patent and winning the suit against Edison, Woods formed the Woods Electric Company in Cincinnati, which he moved to New York City in 1890 to work with his brother, Lyates Woods.
His subsequent inventions focused on improving the efficient use of electricity.
His next widely admired and adopted invention was the third rail system, which is still used by many electric transit systems today. This power pick-up device carries electricity using electromagnetic switches to pull trains along their lines.
U.S. Patent No. 687098, for improvements in the electric railway. Image used courtesy of MIT
Woods developed several other inventions related to transportation, including a railway signaling system, a steam boiler furnace, and a telephone transmitter. He also invented an improved version of the electric trolley, used in cities across the United States and Europe. These inventions greatly improved the efficiency and safety of transportation and were widely used in urban and rural areas.
He also received a patent for an improved automatic air brake for rail cars. General Electric and the Westinghouse Air Brake Company bought many of his patents.
In 1896, it was remarked that Woods’ most exceptional invention was the regulation of electric motors. His improvements helped reduce the resistance and energy loss of a previously energy-intensive and wasteful motor.
Mentor and Role Model for Black Engineers
Despite his many contributions, Woods faced significant obstacles due to this race. He was often denied patents for his inventions and had to fight numerous legal battles to protect his intellectual property.
In many cases, he was denied patents because the Patent Office believed that his inventions were not original and were, in fact, based on the work of white inventors. Edison was just the first of many inventors to claim Woods’ ideas were their own.
However, Woods proved the inventions were original and eventually received nearly 60 patents for his inventions.
Woods was a pioneering inventor and engineer whose contributions profoundly impacted the development of modern technology. His work greatly improved the efficiency and safety of transportation and communication and paved the way for future generations of black engineers.
In addition to his technical achievements, Woods also made significant contributions to the advancement of African Americans in engineering. He was a vocal advocate for the education and empowerment of black engineers. He served as a mentor and role model for many young black engineers, inspiring them to pursue careers in science and technology.
Featured image used courtesy of Adobe Stock