Granville Woods

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Granville Tailer Woods
Illustration of Granville T. Woods
Granville Tailer Woods

(1856-04-23)April 23, 1856
DiedJanuary 30, 1910(1910-01-30) (aged 53)
Resting placeSt. Michael's (Episcopalian) Cemetery, East Elmhurst, New York
GT Woods Signature1.jpg

Granville Tailer Woods (April 23, 1856 – January 30, 1910) was an American inventor who held more than 60 patents.[1] He is also the first American of African ancestry to be a mechanical and electrical engineer after the Civil War.[2] Self-taught, he concentrated most of his work on trains and streetcars. One of his notable inventions was the Multiplex Telegraph, a device that sent messages between train stations and moving trains. His work assured a safer and better public transportation system for the cities of the United States.

Early life[edit]

Granville T. Woods was born to Martha J. Brown and Cyrus Woods. He also had a brother named Lyates.[3] His mother was part Native American, and his father was African American.[4] Granville attended school in Columbus until age 10, but had to leave due to his family's poverty, which meant he needed to work;[5] he served an apprenticeship in a machine shop and learned the trades of machinist and blacksmith. Some sources of his day asserted that he also received two years of college-level training in "electrical and mechanical engineering," but little is known about where he might have studied.[6]


In 1872, Woods obtained a job as a fireman on the Danville and Southern Railroad in Missouri, eventually becoming an engineer. In December 1874, he moved to Springfield, Illinois, and worked at a rolling mill, the Springfield Iron Works. He studied mechanical and electrical engineering in college from 1876-1878.[7] In 1878, he took a job aboard the "Ironsides", and, within two years, became Chief Engineer of the steamer. When he returned to Ohio, he became an engineer with the Dayton and Southwestern Railroad in southwestern Ohio. In 1880, he moved to Cincinnati, Ohio and established his business as an electrical engineer and an inventor. After receiving the patent for the multiplex telegraph, reorganized his Cincinnati company as the Woods Electric Co, but in 1892 he moved his own research operations to New York City, where he was joined by a brother, Lyates Woods, who also had several inventions of his own.[8]

Some internet sources claim he was married. However, the newspapers of his day generally referred to him as a "bachelor." [9] The one indication that he had been married at some point was a brief mention in 1891 that said he was being sued for divorce by a woman identified as Ada Woods.[10] But while little more was said of his personal life, Granville T. Woods was often described as an articulate and well-spoken man, as well as meticulous and stylish in his choice of clothing, and a man who preferred to dress in black.[11] At times, he would refer to himself as an immigrant from Australia,[12] in the belief that he would be given more respect if people thought he was from a foreign country, as opposed to being an African American. In his day, the black newspapers frequently expressed their pride in his achievements, saying he was "the greatest of Negro inventors",[13] and sometimes even calling him "professor," although there is no evidence he ever received a college degree.


Woods invented and patented Tunnel Construction for the electric railroad system, and was referred to by some as the "Black Edison."[14]

In 1885, Woods patented an apparatus which was a combination of a telephone and a telegraph. The device, which he called "telegraphony", would allow a telegraph station to send voice and telegraph messages over a single wire. He sold the rights to this device to the American Bell Telephone Company. In 1887, he patented the Synchronous Multiplex Railway Telegraph which allowed communications between train stations from moving trains, a technology pioneered by Lucius Phelps[15] in 1884.

Thomas Edison later filed a claim to the ownership of this patent.[16] In 1888, Woods manufactured a system of overhead electric conducting lines for railroads modeled after the system pioneered by Charles van Depoele, a famed inventor who had by then installed his electric railway system in thirteen U.S. cities. In 1889, he filed a patent for an improvement to the steam-boiler furnace.

Granville Woods often had difficulties in enjoying his success as other inventors made claims to his devices. Thomas Edison made one of these claims, stating that he had first created a similar telegraph and that he was entitled to the patent for the device. Woods was twice successful in defending himself, proving that there were no other devices upon which he could have depended or relied upon to make his device. After Thomas Edison's second defeat, he decided to offer Granville Woods a position with the Edison Company, but Granville declined.

Woods is sometimes credited with the invention of the electric third rail, however, many third rail systems were in place in both Europe and North America at the time Woods filed for his patent in 1901. Thomas Edison had been awarded a patent for the third rail almost two decades earlier, in 1882.[17]

Woods is also sometimes credited with the invention of the air brake in 1904 for trains, however, George Westinghouse patented the air brake almost 40 years prior.[18]

Over the course of his lifetime Granville Woods would obtain more than 50 patents for inventions including an automatic brake and an egg incubator and for improvements to other inventions such as safety circuits, telegraph, telephone, and phonograph. He died on January 30, 1910 in New York City, having sold a number of his devices to such companies as Westinghouse, General Electric and American Engineering. Until 1975, his resting place was an unmarked grave, but historian M.A. Harris helped to raise funds, and persuaded several of the corporations that used Woods's inventions to donate towards a headstone. It was erected at St. Michael's Cemetery in Elmhurst, Queens NY.[19]

Baltimore City Community College established the Granville T Woods scholarship in memory of the inventor.


  1. ^ “Granville Woods”, The Black Inventor On-Line Museum Archived 2012-11-19 at the Wayback Machine.
  2. ^ “Interesting Statistics of the Colored Race”, Arizona sentinel and Yuma weekly examiner (Yuma, Arizona, USA), Thursday, 9 May 1912, page 2, column 3.
  3. ^ Abiola Sinclair, "Black Man and the Railroad." (New York) Amsterdam News, February 23, 1991, p. 32.
  4. ^ "Granville T. Woods, Electrician and Mechanical Engineer." Indianapolis (IN) Freeman, February 16, 1856, p. 1.
  5. ^ Dwayne A. Cotton, "Granville T. Woods: The Black Thomas Edison." Norfolk (VA) New Journal and Guide, July 17, 1985, p. 14.
  6. ^ "Granville T. Woods, the First Colored Electrician." New Orleans Weekly Pelican, November 5, 1887, p. 2
  7. ^ Simmons (1887), p108
  8. ^ “Granville T. Woods.biography”, bio.true story.
  9. ^ Abiola Sinclair, "Black Man and the Railroad." (New York) Amsterdam News, February 23, 1991, p. 32.
  10. ^ "Duluth, Minn." Saint Paul (MN) Appeal, May 2, 1891, p. 1.
  11. ^ "Black Edison." Kansas City (KS) American Citizen, May 9, 1902, p. 1
  12. ^ "Granville F. Woods." Coffeyville (KS) Afro-American Advocate, April 29, 1892, p. 4
  13. ^ "Patents to Negroes," Indianapolis (IN) Freeman, October 17, 1908, p. 4.
  14. ^ “ ‘Black Edison’s’ Patents”, Boston Sunday Journal (Boston, Massachusetts), Sunday, 20 April 1902, p. 2, col. 4; “‘Black Edison’”, The American Citizen (Kansas City, Kansas), p. 1, col. 1-2; “The ‘Black Edison’”, The Evening Press (Grand Rapids, Michigan), Saturday, 7 June 1902, p. 10, col. 2; Henry E. Baker, “Inventions of the Negro”, The Colored American (Washington, D.C.), Saturday, 14 November 1903, p. 3, col. 3, reprinted from The New York Evening Post (New York City); Daniel Murray, “Color Problem in the United States”, The Seattle Republican (Seattle, Washington), Friday, 30 December 1904, p. 2.
  15. ^ Lucius Joshua Phelps is the father of Earle B. Phelps (1876—1953), the American chemist, bacteriologist and sanitation expert whose biography appears in the English Wikipedia.
  16. ^ Lucius. J[oshua]. Phelps, “Communicating to and from Moving Vehicles by Electricity”, U.S. Patent No. 307,984, patented 11 November 1884.
  17. ^ Thomas A[lva]. Edison, “Electric Magnetic Railway”, U.S. Patent No. 263,132, patented 22 August 1882.
  18. ^ George Westinghouse, Jr., “Steam Power Brake”, U.S. Patent No. 889,929 Archived 2018-11-04 at the Wayback Machine, patented 13 April 1869.
  19. ^ Barbara Campbell. "Tribute Paid to Black Inventor." New York Times, April 24, 1975, p. 34

Further reading[edit]

  • Michael C. Christopher, "Granville T. Woods: The Plight of a Black Inventor," Journal of Black Studies, vol. 11, no. 3 (March 1981), pp. 269–276. In JSTOR
  • David L. Head, Granville T. Woods: African-American Communications and Transportation Pioneer. Pittsburgh, PA: RoseDog Books, 2013.
  • Prof. Rayvon Fouché, “Liars and Thieves : Granville T. Woods and the Process of Invention”, Black Inventors in the Age of Segregation : Granville T. Woods, Lewis H. Latimer, and Shelby J. Davidson. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003; pp. 26–81.
  • Alonzo Louis Hall, The Ancient, Medieval, and Modern Greatness of the Negro. Memphis, TN: Striker Print, 1907; pg. 158.
  • Gary L. Frost, “Granville T. Woods”, in Henry Louis Gates and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, eds., African American Lives. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004; pg. 910.
  • James T. Haley, Afro-American Encyclopedia; or, the Thoughts, Doings, and Sayings of the Race. (Nashville, TN: Haley & Florida, 1895; pg. 22.
  • Rev. William J. Simmons, D.D., Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive and Rising. Cleveland, OH: George M. Rewell & Co., 1887; pp 116

External links[edit]

  • Rayvon Fouche (2003-09-10). Black Inventors in the Age of Segregation: Granville T. Woods, Lewis H. Latimer, and Shelby J. Davidson. The Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 0-8018-7319-3.
  • Biography of Granville T. Woods at the MIT Inventor of the Week website
  • Biography of Granville T. Woods at the National Inventors Hall of Fame website.
  • Biography of Granville T. Woods at the IEEE website.
  • Granville T. Woods at Find-A-Grave