Granville Woods, Electrical Expert & Inventor

Granville Woods was a prolific and exceptionally talented Black inventor. He specialized in creating new ways to use electricity.

formal portrait of Granville T. Woods

Many of Woods’s inventions related to the railroad, but he also created solutions to challenges like how to dim theater lighting, how to build an egg incubator, and how to create a better boiler for steam engines.

All in all, he patented more than 50 inventions, selling the rights to many of them so that he could afford to remain self-employed and continue to invent new things. Bell Telephone, Westinghouse, and Thomas Edison were among those who purchased the rights to his patents.

Many called him the “Black Edison.”

Early Days

Not a great deal is known about Granville T. Woods (1856-1910) and his early life, partly because he told different versions about his past. At least one of his biographers writes that Woods was born in Australia and that his parents were aborigines. Woods talked about this sometimes to distance himself from the heritage of slavery.

Census records tell a different story. Granville Woods was born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1856. His parents were probably former slaves: Martha (from Virginia) and Cyrus (from Tennessee). Granville Woods appears in the Federal Census of 1860 (age 4), living with his family in Columbus. 

When he was 10, he had to leave school to help support the family. He worked in a machine shop repairing railroad equipment. This turned out to be excellent background for a subject that interested him greatly–electricity. As time went on, many of his inventions pertained to improving railroads through the use of electricity.

Additional Education?

Granville Woods was a lifelong student. He absorbed information wherever he was working. Some say that he took night courses in mechanical and electrical engineering, but this cannot be verified. For a Black man, this path would not have been impossible in the late 1800s, but it is unlikely.

Granville Woods’s Work Life

In 1872, Woods left the machine shop in Ohio and got a job with the St. Louis Iron Mountain and Southern Railway. His first position was as a fireman for the railroad. (The position of fireman was to shovel coal into the train engine’s boiler so the engineer could focus on operating the train.) After a time, he was promoted to engineer.

a sketch submitted to the patent office for a railroad car on an electrical track

After two years with the railway, he took a job near Springfield, Illinois, with a rolling mill—an industrial plant where steel is rolled into plates and bars.

Then in 1878, he signed on to be the machinist in charge of the boiler for a British steamer, the Ironsides. His first patent was an outgrowth of this job. In 1884, he patented an improvement on boilers for steam-driven engines.

By 1880, he was ready to return to railroad work in the United States. The Danville and Southern Railroad hired him as one of their engineers. 

Railroad Improvements

After patenting an improvement on boiler systems and patenting another on a stronger telephone transmitter, Woods turned to the main focus of his lifelong work: Finding ways to improve railroads using electricity.

His first project had to do with communication. In the mid-1880s, railroads had no reliable way to relay messages between a railroad station and a moving train, nor could one train communicate with another. Was a bridge washed out? Had tracks been damaged by a rock slide on the route? There was no way to warn other engineers or to let a stationmaster know what awaited trains traveling that route.

Woods wanted to find a solution. His first step involved looking for a way around always using Morse code. Woods had used Morse code in various jobs around train work, but he knew that communication would be easier if people did not always need the code to communicate.

He worked on what he called a “telegraphony.” This device was a  blend of a telegraph and a telephone. A person could give voice messages that were then transmitted over the same wires that were used to send telegraphs.

“Mr. Woods is, perhaps, the best known of all the inventors whose achievements [add to] to the credit of our race; and in his passing away he has left us the rich legacy of a life successfully devoted to the cause of progress.” from The Colored Inventor, 1913.

Induction Telegraph or “Synchronous Multiplex Railway Telegraph”

The next challenge was creating a way for the messages to be passed to moving trains. 

For a moving train to send or receive a message, part of the train needed to be in continuous contact with the wires. But as trains jounced along, wires tended to disconnect. This meant that many messages were lost or delivered incomplete. 

To create his system, Granville Woods worked with the theory of electromagnetic induction. He experimented with installing an oblong coil beneath the train. When an electric current passed through the coil, a magnetic field developed around the train car. When the train moved, Woods saw that the magnetic field moved with it, and so, too, did the wave of electricity it created. (This is known as Faraday’s Law of Induction.) This kept contact continuous, and messages could be sent and received.

Woods Falls Ill

Most inventors are not the only ones looking for certain solutions, and this was the case with Woods and the communication system.

Another sketch for the patent office by Granville T. Woods

Granville Woods was hard at work on the system when he became very ill with smallpox. He was unable to work for several months. During that time, another inventor filed his own paperwork for a patent on a similar system.

When Woods received news of the filing by the other inventor, he stepped forward. He was always meticulous about documenting his work. He soon had working drawings, a prototype, and a timeline delivered to the Patent Office. After the Patent Office review, it was clear that his work preceded that of the other inventor. Granville Woods received his patent in 1887.

This was an important invention, and it was quickly licensed by the American Bell Telephone Company in New York. 

Woods Electric

On the strength of this success, he formed Woods Electric Company in Cincinnati, but he didn’t remain in Ohio for long.  His brother, Lyates, established a business in New York City and was also working with electricity. In 1890, Granville moved to New York to join him.

Did Granville T. Woods Invent the Air Brake or Third Rail?

Some articles credit Woods with inventing the safety air brake and the third rail for trains. He was not the primary inventor of either of these devices. However, he made significant improvements and received patents on the changes he suggested.

Air Brake

In the mid-19th century, railroad accidents were frequent and deadly. Because there was no effective way to quickly stop a multi-car moving train, engineers tended to keep their speed down. That way it was easier to slow to a stop. But if a train was on open track or going downhill and picked up speed, the train had to be stopped one car a time. The railroad engineer would cut power, blow the whistle, and then brake the locomotive.

The sound of the whistle and the change of speed notified the “brakemen,” who rode further back on the train, to go into action. The brakemen proceeded from car to car, turning the brakes and then jumping to the next car. It was dangerous and laborious. Sometimes it was impossible to fully stop the train in time, and brakemen were often injured as they jumped between moving cars.

In 1869 when George Westinghouse came up with the idea for an air brake, it changed everything. The air brake used air hoses to connect the cars. When the engineer turned the brakes in his locomotive, air pressure turned the brakes in each car.

Later versions of this invention created back-up systems. If the hoses leaked or something happened to the engineer (dead man’s brake) the train could still be slowed even when the pressure dropped.

The Third Rail

In-town transportation in America tended to be powered by overhead electrical lines (think of photographs of trolleys).  European countries were beginning to use a “third rail” system (a rigid line that ran beneath or beside the tracks) to power their trains.

In 1888, a giant blizzard wreaked havoc throughout the country, and in New York City, it halted all public transportation by bringing down the overhead wires that powered the trains. New York’s mayor announced that overhead train wires would no longer be acceptable. The trains needed to be powered a different way. 

Mechanical engineers knew that the “third rail” being used in Europe offered an option. If a metal bar carrying electricity could be added beneath the train, the power could be reached via a “shoe” that ran under the train.

Granville Woods patented a system that used wire brushes to pass over electrified terminal heads (no wires exposed) to power the trains. Once the train passed by each terminal head, the next head provided the power, and the previous head was no longer “live.” By using electromagnetic induction in this way, electric power could occur without continuous contact with the power source.

Photo of Coney Island Figure 8 roller coaster

Granville Woods’s system was called a “Multiple Distributing Station System.” 

To demonstrate his system, he installed it on a roller coaster ride on Coney Island (the “Figure Eight”) in 1892 so that it could be demonstrated. The demonstration of the invention was flawless, but that began a series of problems for Granville Woods.

Trouble with Partner

For this invention, he had partnered with a man named James S. Zerbe, who ran the American Patent Company. While Woods worked on the mechanics of the invention, Zerbe was to take care of all the paperwork and filing details.

One day when Woods left the office, Zerbe pocketed the plans and attempted to patent the invention himself.

The court battle was bitter. At one point, Woods was jailed for a time. Despite this, he won his legal case. He received the patent on the “Multiple Distributing Station System” in 1901. 

Though he was able to sell the invention to General Electric, the time wasted in battling Zerbe meant that other solutions had been proposed and worked. For that reason, the system did not see widespread implementation at that time.

Ironically, electrical experts say this invention was 100 years ahead of its time.  Wood’s Multiple Distributing Station System bears a striking resemblance to today’s experimental linear induction railroad propulsion systems.

Defended Against Attacks by Edison, Too

The famous inventor Thomas Edison was known for legally pursuing anyone who seemed to invade his turf. Over the years, two of Granville Woods’s inventions incurred Edison’s wrath. A court battle followed.

Woods always documented his work carefully, and in both cases, he was victorious in court. After the second win, Edison offered Granville Woods a job.  Woods turned him down…he wanted to remain independent.

Other Projects

While Granville Woods continued his exploration of better ways to power railways, he also took time to work on some miscellaneous projects that interested him. One was an egg incubator. By heating an incubator with electricity, Woods’s incubator was a great help to chicken farmers.

A sketch of an incubator submitted to the patent office by Woods

On a completely different note, Woods undertook a project with his brother pertaining to the New York theaters. Both men enjoyed attending plays, which gave them the opportunity to observe a recurrent problem. Theater managers loved to dramatically dim the lights when a show was about to begin, but the dimming process often caused the power unit to overheat. On a good night, there were sparks that had to be put out; but occasionally the system would overheat to the point that a fire started. 

Granville Woods investigated how this could work better, and discovered that if a separate generator were used, the system wouldn’t overheat. Theater by theater, he was able to prove that his improvement was very much worthwhile.

Granville Woods and Later Life

In his later years, Granville Woods pulled together enough money to buy a farm in Monsey, New York. How much he got to enjoy it is uncertain as he died in 1910 of a cerebral hemorrhage.

Recognition During His Lifetime

During his lifetime, Granville Woods was well-known to other inventors in his field, and he received some general recognition for his work.

The Catholic Tribune in Cincinnati, Ohio (Jan 14, 1886) wrote that Woods was: “the greatest colored inventor in the history of the race and equal, if not superior, to any inventor in the country…”

But perhaps the praise that would have been most meaningful to Woods came three years after his death. Henry E. Baker was a second assistant examiner in the Patent Office and decided to write a book about Black inventors:  Baker wrote in his book, The Colored Inventor: “Mr. Woods is, perhaps, the best known of all the inventors whose achievements [add to] to the credit of our race; and in his passing away he has left us the rich legacy of a life successfully devoted to the cause of progress.”

This recognition did not lead to financial success for Granville Woods. The color of his skin meant that he lived on the fringes of society and of the business world. He was penniless when he died. It was arranged for him to be buried in a pauper’s grave with several other people in St. Michael’s Cemetery in East Elmhurst, Queens.

No one buried in that grave had a headstone.

More Recognition Comes Slowly

In the late 1960s, recognition began to percolate slowly, probably because of the work of a historian, M.A. Harris, who decided someone needed to collect papers and memorabilia of Black leaders who were forgotten. Harris’s collection grew in reputation, and he often loaned his material out to institutions like the Smithsonian. He also used his research for writing “The Black Book.” In it, he relates stories of many forgotten leaders.

Tombstone for Granville T. Woods, Esq. It reads:  1856-1910, Electrician-Inventor

By 1969, a public school (#335) in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn was named after Granville Woods. 

By 1974, Woods was being recognized in his home state of Ohio. The state governor issued a proclamation recognizing Granville Woods for his achievements in science.

Re-Discovering Granville Woods

When Harris discovered that Granville Woods was buried in an unmarked grave, he wanted to rectify that. He contacted Western Electric for part of the needed funding. In 1975, a small service was held at the cemetery to add a headstone at the grave site. In attendance were 30 fourth-grade students from Granville T. Woods elementary school, whose field trip was paid for by Western Electric.

Perhaps thanks to Harris’s work, a New York Metro Transit employee named David L. Head took up the cause. Head was Chairman of the Transport Workers Union Black History Committee, and the more he learned about Granville Woods, the more he wanted to know about Woods’s work on railroads.

As a result of Head’s passion and research, the Brooklyn Public Library agreed to mount an exhibit about Granville Woods’s career, and the Metro Transit Museum now has a plaque recognizing him. In addition, in 2004 Head arranged for 4 million commemorative Metro cards to be produced and distributed.

The New York Metro Transit Authority created a commemorative "Metro Card" that gave Granville Woods's biography. It was distributed in 2004.
Commemorative Metro Card, NYC

As David Head noted, this recognition is well-deserved. We have Granville Woods to thank for some important steps forward for modernizing the railway.

To read about another inventor who should be remembered, read about Marie Van Brittan Brown, who patented the first security camera.

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