Granville T. Woods was a prominent inventor and electrical engineer who developed over 50 significant patents over the course of his life. Because of his significant electrical inventions he is known as the “Black Edison.”
Woods was born on April 23, 1856 in Columbus, Ohio. He attended school until he was 10 years old and then, as was typical of the era, he left school to start work. Employed in a mechanic’s shop, he developed a fascination with railroad equipment. Woods, an avid reader and astute learner, began to focus all his spare time and attention to mastering electrical engineering. At the age of 20 he enrolled in a technical college and trained for two years in electrical and mechanical engineering. After graduation, with no prominent jobs prospects in Ohio, he worked as an engineer on a British steamer which allowed him to travel the globe. Woods eventually settled Cincinnati, Ohio where he formed the Woods Electric Company. His decision to become an independent entrepreneur stemmed in part because of his difficulty in finding work.
By 1887 Woods developed the first of his inventions, the Synchronous Multiplex Railway Telegraph which allowed communication between moving trains and train depots. One year later he developed a system for overhead electric conducting which helped power locomotives. In 1889 he filed his first patent for an improved steam-boiler furnace.
Woods competed with more prominent inventors of the era including Thomas Edison who claimed invention of the multiplex telegraph and filed a lawsuit to support his claim. Woods won the legal challenge prompting Edison to offer him a prominent position in the engineering department of Edison Electric Light Company in New York. Woods declined the offer, preferring to maintain control over his inventions.
Granville T. Woods died in Cincinnati in 1910. Over the course of his lifetime he held over 35 patents including a dozen for inventions which made electrical railways safer and more efficient.
Robert Hayden, Nine African American Inventors (New York: Presidio Twenty First Century Books, 1992); Portia P. James, The Real McCoy: African American Invention and Innovation 1619-1930 (Washington, D.C.: The Smithsonian Institution, 1989); David M. Foy, Great Discoveries and Inventions by African Americans (Edgewood, Maryland: APU Publishing Group,1989).
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