Sunday, February 17, 2019

Day 21 - Granville T. Woods - The Black Edison

Granville Tailer Woods

(I sort of want to do a profile of Thomas Edison and call him the white Granville T. Woods)

1856 - 1910

Who Was He?

Granville was born in Columbus, Ohio to free African Americans. He did not manage to get much in the way of education as a young man because of his family's extreme poverty. 

At the age of ten, he was forced to quit school and get a job to help ends meet. 

blacksmith hammer
He was apprenticed in a machine shop and learned to be a machinist and blacksmith.  

(In reading about Woods, I discovered any number of sources that claimed that somewhere in his young life he attended a couple of years of college at some institution, but never got a degree. Nobody points to a single record, and no college or university has ever stepped forward with his name on their rolls.

There is no record of him having attended college anywhere.)

Granville became a fireman on the Danville and Southern Railroad in Missouri in 1872. 

This is what a fireman does.

By 1874 he was the engineer.

In 1874 he moved to Springfield, Il and found work in a rolling mill.

From that point in his life until 1880, Granville had a number of jobs from chief engineer on a locomotive line, to being an engineer aboard a British warship. It was during this period of his life when he was working railroads that he got the idea for his most famous invention.

It is in the years before 1880 that claims of night school or college are made. Again, despite sources announcing this, there is no evidence that he ever attended higher education. His mechanical and engineering know-how was earned as on the job training.

This does not mean he never spent a couple of years in night school, just that nobody seems to have any evidence it happened.

What Did He Invent?

In 1880, Granville moved to Cincinnati, Ohio and opened up a business as an electrical engineer and inventor. His idea was to design, execute, and sell electrical items.


In 1884 he patented an improved steam boiler furnace.  

Induction Telegraph

In 1887 he patented the Induction Telegraph System for the railroads.

This was his most famous invention.

This clever device allowed the telegraph operators to send voice messages and telegraphs over the same wire.

It greatly improved both safety and service for the railroads.

Alexander Graham Bell's company snapped up the patent for this thing, and with the proceeds, Woods was able to set himself up for full time inventing.

Wood's biggest problem over his inventing life was that he would invent something, and a white man would show up and claim he'd invented it first. Woods had to defend his patents in court quite a few times.

The most famous inventor who tried to take credit for Wood's work was Thomas Edison. Edison sued him twice, claiming that he should get credit for the Induction Telegraph.

Edison lost in court twice. He was annoyed but determined to be in on whatever Woods invented next. To that end, Edison invited Woods to come on as a partner in his firm.

Woods respectfully declined Edison's offer and moved his operations to New York, City. There is no indication these two events had anything to do with each other.

After his tussle with Edison and the rejected partnership, people started calling Woods "The Black Edison".

Woods designed a number of revolutionary systems and items for the railroad. His work led directly to the establishment of subway systems.

Here is a link to the Brooklyn Historic Railway Association. They list a number of the inventions Woods designed and patented that made it possible to design and build the New York subway system.

What Is His Legacy?

Granville T. Woods transformed the railroad industry in America and across the world. His telegraph system made train travel much safer and more efficient.

His many inventions for trains and trolleys were foundational to the creation of all of the major subway systems in every American city. 

He improved a number of other features on the railroads like the air brake and third rail technology.

General Electric and Westinghouse are just two of the powerhouse companies who bought Granville's patents and produced his devices.


So, if you ever have occasion to get on a subway, or see one, or encounter one while you are watching a film, give a thought to Granville T. Woods. 

He's the reason it is there at all.

Celebrate Black History!

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