Granville Woods

Granville Tailer Woods (April 23, 1856 – January 30, 1910) was an inventor who held more than 60 patents in the U.S.[1] He was the first American of African ancestry to be a mechanical and electrical engineer after the Civil War.[2] Self-taught, he concentrated most of his work on trains and streetcars. One of his notable inventions was a device he called the Synchronous Multiplex Railway Telegraph, a variation of induction telegraph which relied on ambient static electricity from existing telegraph lines to send messages between train stations and moving trains.[3] His work assured a safer and better public transportation system for the cities of the United States.

Granville Tailer Woods
Illustration of Woods
Born(1856-04-23)April 23, 1856
DiedJanuary 30, 1910(1910-01-30) (aged 53)
Resting placeSt. Michael's (Episcopalian) Cemetery, East Elmhurst, New York
GT Woods Signature1.jpg

Early lifeEdit

Granville T. Woods was born to Martha J. Brown and Cyrus Woods. He had a brother named Lyates.[4] His mother was part Native American and his father was African American.[5] Granville attended school in Columbus until age 10, but had to leave due to his family's poverty, which meant he needed to work;[6] 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.[7]


In 1872, Woods obtained a job as a fireman on the Danville and Southern Railroad in Missouri. He eventually became an engineer, and in December 1874 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.[8]

In 1878, he took a job aboard the steamer "Ironsides", and, within two years, became Chief Engineer. When he returned to Ohio, 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. After receiving the multiplex telegraph patent, he reorganized his Cincinnati company as the Woods Electric Co. In 1892 he moved his research operations to New York City, where he was joined by his brother, Lyates Woods, who also had several inventions.[9]

While, the newspapers of his day generally referred to him as a bachelor,[10] Woods was married to Ada Woods who was granted a divorce from him in 1891 due to adultery.[11]

Granville T. Woods was often described as an articulate and well-spoken man, as meticulous and stylish in his choice of clothing, and as a man who preferred to dress in black.[12] At times, he would refer to himself as an immigrant from Australia,[13] in the belief that he would be given more respect if people thought he was from a foreign country, as opposed to being an African American. In his day, the black newspapers frequently expressed their pride in his achievements, saying he was "the greatest of Negro inventors",[14] and sometimes even calling him "professor", although there is no evidence he ever received a college degree.[citation needed]


Granville T. Woods invented and patented Tunnel Construction for the electric railroad system, and was referred to by some as the "Black Edison".[15] Over the course of his lifetime Granville Woods obtained more than 50 patents for inventions including an automatic brake, an egg incubator, and for improvements to other technologies such as the safety circuit, telegraph, telephone, and phonograph.[16]

In 1884, Woods received his first patent for a steam boiler furnace.[17]and 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 through Morse code over a single wire. He sold the rights to this device to the American Bell Telephone Company.[18] In 1887, he patented the Synchronous Multiplex Railway Telegraph which allowed communications between train stations from moving trains by creating a magnetic field around a coiled wire under the train. Woods caught smallpox prior to patenting the technology and Lucius Phelps[19] patented it in 1884. In 1887, Woods used notes, sketches and a working model of the invention to secure the patent.[20][21] The invention was so successful that Woods began the Woods Electric Company in Cincinnati, Ohio to market and sell his patents. However, the company quickly became devoted to invention creation until it dissolved in 1893.[18] Thomas Edison later filed a claim to the ownership of this patent,[22] stating that he had first created a similar telegraph and that he was entitled to the patent for the device, and Woods often had difficulties in enjoying his success as other inventors made claims to his devices. 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.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]

Following the Great Blizzard of 1888, New York City Mayor Hugh J. Grant declared that all wires had to be removed and buried, many of which powered the above ground rail system emphasizing the need for and underground system.[23] Woods' patent built upon previous third rail systems which were used for light rails and increased the power for use on underground trains.[20] His system relied on wire brushes to make connections with metallic terminal heads without exposing wires by installing electrical contactor rails. Once the train car had passed over, the wires were no longer live reducing the risk of injury.[24][25][26] It was successfully tested in February 1892 in Coney Island on the Figure Eight Roller Coaster.[27][28] Later that year, he was arrested and charged with libel after taking out an advertisement in a trade magazine warning against patronizing the American Engineering Company of New York City. The company had provided funds for Woods to market the invention but a crucial component of the invention was missing from the deal which the manager of the company, James S. Zerbe, later stole. A jury acquitted Woods, but Zerbe had already patented the design in Europe and the design was valued at $1 million.[25][29][20] Woods patented the invention in 1893[26] and in 1901, he sold it to General Electric.[18]

In 1896, Woods created a system for controlling electrical lights in theaters which was economical, safe, and efficient saving 40% of electricity savings, known as the "safety dimmer."[30][18][31]

Woods is also sometimes credited with the invention of the air brake in 1904 for trains, however, George Westinghouse patented the air brake almost 40 years prior, making Woods' an improvement to the invention.[32][33]

Death and legacyEdit

He died of a cerebral hemorrhage at Harlem Hospital in New York City on January 30, 1910, 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.[16]

Baltimore City Community College established the Granville T Woods scholarship in memory of the inventor.[citation needed]

In 2004, the New York City Transit Authority organized an exhibition on Woods which utilized bus and train depots, and an issue of four million MetroCards commemorating the inventor's achievements in pioneering the third rail.[34]

In 2006, Woods was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.[35]

In April 2008, the corner of Stillwell and Mermaid Avenues in Coney Island was named Granville T. Woods Way.[28]


  1. ^ “Granville Woods”, The Black Inventor On-Line Museum Archived 2012-11-19 at the Wayback Machine.
  2. ^ “Interesting Statistics of the Colored Race”, Arizona sentinel and Yuma weekly examiner (Yuma, Arizona, USA), Thursday, 9 May 1912, page 2, column 3.
  3. ^ "Granville Woods". The National Inventors Hall of Fame. 2006. Retrieved 2020-02-25.
  4. ^ Abiola Sinclair, "Black Man and the Railroad." (New York) Amsterdam News, February 23, 1991, p. 32.
  5. ^ "Granville T. Woods, Electrician and Mechanical Engineer." Indianapolis (IN) Freeman, February 16, 1856, p. 1.
  6. ^ Dwayne A. Cotton, "Granville T. Woods: The Black Thomas Edison." Norfolk (VA) New Journal and Guide, July 17, 1985, p. 14.
  7. ^ "Granville T. Woods, the First Colored Electrician." New Orleans Weekly Pelican, November 5, 1887, p. 2
  8. ^ Simmons (1887), p108
  9. ^ “Granville T. Woods.biography”, bio.true story.
  10. ^ Abiola Sinclair, "Black Man and the Railroad." (New York) Amsterdam News, February 23, 1991, p. 32.
  11. ^ "Cincinnati Enquirer October 16, 1891 Granville Woods accused of beating his wife". The Cincinnati Enquirer. 1891-10-16. p. 8. Retrieved 2020-02-17.
  12. ^ "Black Edison." Kansas City (KS) American Citizen, May 9, 1902, p. 1
  13. ^ "Granville F. Woods." Coffeyville (KS) Afro-American Advocate, April 29, 1892, p. 4
  14. ^ "Patents to Negroes," Indianapolis (IN) Freeman, October 17, 1908, p. 4.
  15. ^ “ ‘Black Edison’s’ Patents”, Boston Sunday Journal (Boston, Massachusetts), Sunday, 20 April 1902, p. 2, col. 4; “‘Black Edison’”, The American Citizen (Kansas City, Kansas), p. 1, col. 1-2; “The ‘Black Edison’”, The Evening Press (Grand Rapids, Michigan), Saturday, 7 June 1902, p. 10, col. 2; Henry E. Baker, “Inventions of the Negro”, The Colored American (Washington, D.C.), Saturday, 14 November 1903, p. 3, col. 3, reprinted from The New York Evening Post (New York City); Daniel Murray, “Color Problem in the United States”, The Seattle Republican (Seattle, Washington), Friday, 30 December 1904, p. 2.
  16. ^ a b "Tribute Paid to Black Inventor". NY Times. April 24, 1975. Retrieved 2020-02-08.
  17. ^ Christopher, Michael C. (1981). "Granville T. Woods: The Plight of a Black Inventor". Journal of Black Studies. 11 (3): 269–276. ISSN 0021-9347.
  18. ^ a b c d Haber, Louis (1991). Black Pioneers of Science and Invention. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN 978-0-15-208566-7.
  19. ^ Lucius Joshua Phelps is the father of Earle B. Phelps (1876—1953), the American chemist, bacteriologist and sanitation expert whose biography appears in the English Wikipedia.
  20. ^ a b c "Granville T. Woods, Inventor Known as 'Black Edison'". The New York Times. 2019-01-31. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2020-02-08.
  21. ^ [1], "Signments", issued 1887-11-29 
  22. ^ Lucius. J[oshua]. Phelps, “Communicating to and from Moving Vehicles by Electricity”, U.S. Patent No. 307,984, patented 11 November 1884.
  23. ^ Sun, By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore. "Back Story: In late 1800s, New York City buried wires after a natural disaster". Retrieved 2020-02-17.
  24. ^ "Clipped From The Salina Sun". The Salina Sun. 1892-04-16. p. 2. Retrieved 2020-02-17.
  25. ^ a b "Electricians in Court". 1892-04-02. p. 1. Retrieved 2020-02-17.
  26. ^ a b Woods, Granville T. (November 21, 1893). "Electric-railway conduit". Retrieved February 17, 2020.
  27. ^ "Clipped From Miners Journal". Miners Journal. 1892-02-22. p. 2. Retrieved 2020-02-17.
  28. ^ a b "Granville T. Woods". Coney Island History Project. 2015-08-31. Retrieved 2020-02-17.
  29. ^ "Says it is His Patent". The Brooklyn Citizen. 1892-03-07. p. 2. Retrieved 2020-02-17.
  30. ^ Woods, Granville T (October 13, 1896). "US569443A". Retrieved February 17, 2020.
  31. ^ Woods, Granville T (October 13, 1896). "US569443A". Retrieved February 17, 2020.
  32. ^ George Westinghouse, Jr., “Steam Power Brake”, U.S. Patent No. 889,929 Archived 2018-11-04 at the Wayback Machine, patented 13 April 1869.
  33. ^ Taborn, Tyrone (1983). "Publisher's Page". Umoja Sasa. 7 (1): 6–6. ISSN 2472-0674.
  34. ^ Chan, Sewell (2004-12-26). "About a Third-Rail Pioneer, Gallant Disagreement". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2020-02-17.
  35. ^ "NIHF Inductee Granville Woods Invented Railroad Telegraphy". Retrieved 2020-02-17.

Further readingEdit

  • Michael C. Christopher, "Granville T. Woods: The Plight of a Black Inventor," Journal of Black Studies, vol. 11, no. 3 (March 1981), pp. 269–276. In JSTOR
  • David L. Head, Granville T. Woods: African-American Communications and Transportation Pioneer. Pittsburgh, PA: RoseDog Books, 2013.
  • Prof. Rayvon Fouché, “Liars and Thieves : Granville T. Woods and the Process of Invention”, Black Inventors in the Age of Segregation : Granville T. Woods, Lewis H. Latimer, and Shelby J. Davidson. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003; pp. 26–81.
  • Alonzo Louis Hall, The Ancient, Medieval, and Modern Greatness of the Negro. Memphis, TN: Striker Print, 1907; pg. 158.
  • Gary L. Frost, “Granville T. Woods”, in Henry Louis Gates and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, eds., African American Lives. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004; pg. 910.
  • James T. Haley, Afro-American Encyclopedia; or, the Thoughts, Doings, and Sayings of the Race. (Nashville, TN: Haley & Florida, 1895; pg. 22.
  • Rev. William J. Simmons, D.D., Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive and Rising. Cleveland, OH: George M. Rewell & Co., 1887; pp 116

External linksEdit