Granville African-American Inventor
Granville Tailer Woods (April 23, 1856 – January 30, 1910) was an African-American inventor who held more than 50 patents. He is also the first American of African ancestry to be a mechanical and electrical engineer after the Civil War. Self-taught, he concentrated most of his work on trains and streetcars. One of his notable inventions was the Multiplex Telegraph, a device that sent messages between train stations and moving trains. His work assured a safer and better public transportation system for the cities of the United States.
According to some sources, Granville T. Woods was born to a mixed-race family in 1856; his mother’s name was Martha J. Brown and his father’s name was Cyrus Woods. He also had a brother named Lyates. His mother was part Indian (today referred to as Native American), and his father was black, or “Negro,” as African-Americans were then called. Granville attended school in Columbus until age 10, but had to leave due to his family’s poverty, which necessitated his going to work; he served an apprenticeship in a machine shop and learned the trades of machinist and blacksmith. Some sources of his day asserted that he also received two years of college-level training in “electrical and mechanical engineering,” but little is known about where he might have studied.
In 1872, Woods obtained a job as a fireman on the Danville and Southern Railroad in Missouri, eventually becoming an engineer. In 1876, he moved to Springfield, Illinois, and worked at a rolling mill, the Springfield Iron Works. He studied mechanical and electrical engineering in college from 1876-1878. In 1878, he took a job aboard the “Ironsides”, and, within two years, became Chief Engineer of the steamer. When he returned to America, he became an engineer with the Dayton and Southwestern Railroad in southwestern Ohio. In 1880, he moved to Cincinnati, Ohio and established his business as an electrical engineer and an inventor.
Woods developed several improvements to the railroad system, and was referred to by some as the “Black Edison.” In 1885, Woods patented an apparatus which was a combination of a telephone and a telegraph. The device, which he called “telegraphony”, would allow a telegraph station to send voice and telegraph messages over a single wire. He sold the rights to this device to the American Bell Telephone Company. In 1887, he patented the Synchronous Multiplex Railway Telegraph which allowed communications between train stations from moving trains, a technology pioneered by Lucius Phelps in 1884.
Thomas Edison later filed a claim to the ownership of this patent. In 1888, Woods manufactured a system of overhead electric conducting lines for railroads modeled after the system pioneered by Charles van Depoele, a famed inventor who had by then installed his electric railway system in thirteen U.S. cities. In 1889, he filed a patent for an improvement to the steam-boiler furnace.
Granville Woods often had difficulties in enjoying his success as other inventors made claims to his devices. Thomas Edison made one of these claims, stating that he had first created a similar telegraph and that he was entitled to the patent for the device. Woods was twice successful in defending himself, proving that there were no other devices upon which he could have depended or relied upon to make his device. After Thomas Edison’s second defeat, he decided to offer Granville Woods a position with the Edison Company, but Granville declined.
Over the course of his lifetime Granville Woods would obtain more than 50 patents for inventions including an automatic brake and an egg incubator and for improvements to other inventions such as safety circuits, telegraph, telephone, and phonograph.
He died on January 30, 1910 in New York City, having sold a number of his devices to such companies as Westinghouse, General Electric and American Engineering. Until 1975, his resting place was an unmarked grave, but historian M.A. Harris helped to raise funds, and persuaded several of the corporations that used Woods’s inventions to donate towards a headstone. It was erected at St. Michael’s Cemetery in Elmhurst, Queens NY.