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With over 50 patents, Granville Woods is forever “Black Edison”

by Ezekiel J. Walker
With over 60 patents, Granville Woods is forever "Black Edison"
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Granville Woods was born on April 23, 1856 in Columbus, Ohio. He attended school until the age of 10, however, he would soon leave as was customary at the time.

While an apprentice, Woods studied to be a machinist and a blacksmith, and literally learned his skills on the job. According to MIT, “his inventions were so prolific that he is often known as ‘The Black Edison,’ but unlike Thomas Edison, Woods was considered fortunate to receive an education to help him on the road to his inventions because during this time period, few Black children ever saw the inside of a classroom.”

In 1872, Woods obtained a job as a fireman on the Danville and Southern railroad in Missouri, eventually becoming an engineer and studying electronics in his spare time. In 1874, he moved to Springfield, Illinois, and worked in a rolling mill. Four years later, he took a job aboard the British steamer Ironsides. Within two years, he became its chief engineer. According to Cincinnati Magazine, Woods and his family moved to Cincinnati around 1880.

While working, Woods took courses in fields such as engineering and electronics, realizing that education was essential to developing the necessary skills he would need to express his creativity.​

Although initially employed by the Dayton and Southwestern Railroad, Woods later set up his own engineering and electrical company, with offices in Cincinnati.

Per Thought Co., telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell’s company, American Bell Telephone Co., purchased the rights to Woods’ patent on an apparatus that combined a telephone and a telegraph. The device, which Woods called “telegraphony,” allowed a telegraph station to send voice and telegraph messages over a single wire. Proceeds from the sale gave Woods the luxury of becoming a full-time inventor.

Even without formal education, Granville Woods’ Black Excellence would prevail.

Woods also developed a system for overhead electric conducting lines for railroads, which aided in the development of overhead railroad systems in cities such as Chicago, St. Louis, and New York.

His patents are widely varied, from industrial steam boilers to a new design for electric batteries to an “Amusement Apparatus” that anticipated the slot car racetrack sets which were popular in the 1960s. Woods explained in his 1899 patent application that his “Amusement Apparatus” could be built as a toy, or at full scale:

“The apparatus may be constructed on a large or a small scale, as desired, and the moving cars or device may be capable of carrying persons or objects or not, as desired and according to the space to be occupied.”

The “Amusement Apparatus” patented by Granville Woods was a precursor to slot-car racers—and to amusement park rides.

Woods eventually set up his own business, the Woods Electrical Co., in Cincinnati to develop, manufacture, and sell electrical apparatus. In his early 30s, he became interested in thermal power and steam-driven engines. He filed his first patent for an improved steam boiler furnace in 1889. His later patents were mainly for electrical devices.

According to Biography, one of his most important inventions was the “troller,” a grooved metal wheel that allowed street cars (later known as “trolleys”) to collect electric power from overhead wires.

Electric streetcar systems like this one in Lincoln, Nebraska, were established thanks to Woods’ development of overhead electric conducting lines. Library of Congress / Public Domain

He also developed the Synchronous Multiplex Railway Telegraph, which allowed communications between train stations and moving trains. This made it possible for trains to communicate with stations and other trains so everyone knew exactly where the trains were at all times.

Thomas Edison was smart, so was Granville Woods.

Success also led to lawsuits. One was filed by famed inventor Thomas Edison, who sued Woods on a claim that he, Edison, was the inventor of the multiplex telegraph. Woods eventually won the court battle, but Edison didn’t give up easily. Trying to win over Woods and his inventions, Edison offered Woods a prominent position in the engineering department of Edison Electric Light Co. in New York. Woods declined, preferring to maintain his independence. Like a real one.

Early in his career during the summer of 1881, Woods contracted smallpox, which was in its last years as a major health threat in the US. The often fatal illness sidelined Woods for nearly a year and left him with chronic kidney and liver disease that might have played a role in his early death. He suffered a stroke on Jan. 28, 1910, and died at Harlem Hospital in New York two days later.

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