Granville T. Woods

Woods invented many electrical and electromechanical devices related to railway technology and telecommunications systems. He also invented the egg incubator and improvements to inventions such as safety circuits, phonographs, telegraphs, and telephones. Altogether, he had approximately sixty patents to his credit.

Born:April 23, 1856; Columbus, Ohio Died: January 30, 1910; New York, New York Also known as:Granville Trey Woods (full name) Primary field:Railway engineering Primary invention:Synchronous multiplex railway telegraph

Early Life

Granville Trey Woods, son of Tailer and Martha Woods, was born on April 23, 1856, in Columbus, Ohio. Because of the Northwest Ordinance, a law passed in 1787, he was born a free African American. Woods attended school until the age of ten, when he began a machine shop apprenticeship. He learned trades that enabled him to repair railroad equipment and machinery and to also work as a blacksmith. Intrigued by electrical power, Woods studied other workers as they dealt with different machines and paid those workers to teach him electrical concepts. To improve his academic skills, he also went to night school and took private lessons. Woods left Columbus when he was sixteen years old and traveled around the country working on railroads and in steel rolling mills. His academic and employment experiences helped to prepare him for formal engineering coursework. His natural talents, inquisitive nature, persistence, and determination prepared him for the life of a very productive inventor.

Although the Civil War had ended, certain areas of the United States were embroiled in racial turmoil. Many African American workers were unable to get lucrative factory jobs because they were undereducated, unskilled, or simply because of their skin color. Those who were qualified for such jobs were limited to a narrow range of careers and often prohibited from joining increasingly powerful unions. Woods sought ways to overcome racial barriers to his success.

years later, he and his brother Lyates formed the Woods Railway Telegraph Company, which later became the Woods Electric Company. The company developed, manufactured, and sold telephone, telegraph, and electrical equipment. Among the company’s first patented inventions were an improved steam boiler furnace and an improved telephone transmitter with superior clarity of sound and longer-range transmission.

In 1885, Woods patented a product that was a combination of a telephone and a telegraph, a “telegraphony.” His invention allowed a telegraph operator to send either voice or telegraph messages over a single wire. The device was so successful that he later sold it to the American Bell Telephone Company. The lucrative sale enabled Woods to become a full-time inventor.

Woods patented a synchronous multiplex railway telegraph in 1887. A variation of the induction telegraph, it allowed for messages to be sent between moving trains, and between trains and railway stations. With this device, dispatchers could know the location of each train, telegraph information about equipment conditions and hazardous weather, and take necessary precautions to make railway travel safer. In the robust railroad industry of the late nineteenth century, this invention was so successful that Woods found himself fighting patent suits filed by Thomas Alva Edison and Lucius Phelps. Woods successfully defended himself, proving that there were no existing devices upon which he could have modeled his invention. Persistent in winning Woods and his expertise, Edison offered Woods a prominent position in the engineering department of Edison Electric Light Company in New York. Woods refused, preferring to remain independent.

As a prolific inventor, Woods soon developed other inventions for electric railways. His patents included electromechanical and electromagnetic brakes (1887), an overhead electrical conducting system for trolleys (1888), and an automatic safety cutout for electric circuits (1889). For a while, he manufactured and sold his inventions through the Woods Electric Company, but he later sold his patent rights to the General Electric Company.

In 1890, Woods moved to New York City to develop more electrical equipment for subways and trolleys. In collaboration with his brother Lyates, he patented emergency braking systems and devices relating to third-rail power. Woods used his knowledge of electrical systems to devise the method of supplying electricity to a train without any exposed wires or secondary batteries. Approximately every twelve feet, electricity would be passed to the train as it passed over an iron block. In 1892, he demonstrated the device as a complete Electric Railway System at Coney Island amusement park in New York City. The Woods Electric Company closed in 1893, but Granville Woods continued working to meet the need for more electrical products.

At the turn of the century, Woods patented an air brake, an egg incubator, and devices for regulating and controlling electrical devices and motors. He continued to develop and patent better railway systems and equipment during the last decade of his life. When he died on January 30, 1910, at Harlem Hospital in New York City, he had become an admired and well-respected inventor, having sold many patents to such corporations as Westinghouse Air Brake Company, General Electric, American Bell Telephone, and American Engineering.


Many of Woods’s inventions attempted to increase efficiency, safety, and profitability of the burgeoning railway communications, commerce, and industry of his time. Because he explored the many advantages and possibilities in utilizing clean electrical energy over horse power, coal, and steam, he is among the forerunners of modern proponents of environmentally friendly energy sources.

Over the course of his lifetime, Woods obtained approximately sixty patents for his inventions, including an electromechanical brake, an electromagnetic brake, an automatic air brake, an electrical railway system, and an egg incubator. He also had patents for improvements to other inventions, such as safety circuits, telegraphs, phonographs, and telephones. Among Woods’s betterknown contributions are inventions introducing thirdrail electrical power in mass-transit subway systems and overhead electrical power for trolley cars. Many subway, elevated, and commuter-rail systems still use third-rail electrical power. His development of the synchronous multiplex railway telegraph system allowed messages to be sent to and from moving trains, enabling train conductors and engineers to avoid collisions and to report information about hazardous conditions. This invention is one of the forerunners of modern communications networks. Woods is among the inventors who have inspired creative integration of science, engineering, and technology to solve a variety of business and industrial problems.

Woods struggled as a relatively small businessman encountering opposition from big corporations with competitive advantages. Although selling some of his patents yielded him initial profits, Woods came to realize that a product sometimes resulted in higher-than-anticipated demand. Yet because he sold his patents, he received no additional profits and little if any public recognition for their development. Even when challenges to his patents forced him into legal disputes, Woods demonstrated the fortitude needed to consistently defend his patent rights.

Granville T. Woods overcame many obstacles related to being an African American genius and a prolific inventor during an era when most African Americans could obtain neither a basic education nor viable employment. Public schools in New York City, Chicago, and suburban New Orleans were later named in his honor.

—June Lundy Gastón

Further Reading

Bridglall, Beatrice L., and Edmund W. Gordon. “Nurturance of African American Scientific Talent.” The Journal of African American History 89, no. 4 (Autumn, 2004): 331-347. Includes a historical review of challenges faced by minority scientists, a discussion of the shortage of scientists in the United States, and an examination of several model academic programs to advocate changes that will facilitate increases in the number of minority scientists. Christopher, Michael C. “Granville T. Woods: The

Plight of a Black Inventor.” Journal of Black Studies 11, no. 3 (March, 1981): 269-276. Describes the challenges Woods encountered as he developed, marketed, and sold his inventions. Fouché, Rayvon. Black Inventors in the Age of Segregation: Granville T. Woods, Lewis H. Latimer, and Shelby J. Davidson. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003. Fouché focuses on three African American inventors whose careers reflect the challenges of intellectual achievement and professional advancement in a society defined by racial prejudice. Profillidis, Vassilios A. Railway Engineering. 2d ed.

Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2000. Profillidis focuses mainly on railroad track, and he includes chapters on electrification of railways and the modern role of rail transport. For engineers, researchers, and students interested in the design, operation, and engineering management of railways, the book incorporates both theories and practical applications and includes diagrams and references. Simmons, William J. Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive, and Rising. Cleveland, Ohio: George M. Rewell and Company, 1947. A significant contribution to the early research and study of black history. Simmons, former president of Kentucky State University, documents the biographies of world-famous historical figures. Sluby, Patricia Carter. The Inventive Spirit of African

Americans: Patented Ingenuity. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2004. Sluby, a former primary U.S. patent examiner, presents a history of African American inventors and scientists based on her review of patents issued. Includes bibliographical references, an index, and an appendix listing inventor names, inventions, and patent numbers. Spangenburg, Ray, and Kit Moser. African Americans in

Science, Math, and Invention. New York: Facts On File, 2003. Outlines the lives of 160 African American scientists since 1731, highlighting not only the challenges and difficulties the subjects encountered in their scientific pursuits but also the barriers to their formal education and training. Includes a bibliography, special categorical index, and black-and-white photographs.


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