April 23, 1856 – Birthday of Granville T. Woods, “The Black Edison”

Granville T. Woods was an African American born in Columbus, Ohio on this date in 1856. The most prolific African-American inventor of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, he came up with numerous inventions including a steam-boiler furnace, telephone, telegraph system, electric railway and automatic air brake for railroad safety. If you thought that whites, and in particular Thomas Edison, would get the most credit for these ideas, you would be correct. Black inventors had little if any protection for their intellectual property at this time in history.

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Woods only attended school until the age of ten. Thereafter, while working in a machine shop repairing railroad equipment and machinery, he became intrigued by the electricity that powered the machinery. He studied machine workers as they worked with equipment and paid other workers to sit down and explain electrical concepts to him. Eventually, he was able to afford formal engineering training.

Unfortunately, despite his high aptitude and valuable education and expertise, Woods was denied opportunities and promotions because of the color of his skin. Out of frustration and a desire to promote his abilities, Woods, along with his brother Lyates, formed the Woods Railway Telegraph Company in 1884.

The company manufactured and sold telephone, telegraph and electrical equipment. Inventions from the company include an improved steam boiler furnace and an improved telephone transmitter. In 1885, Woods patented a system combining the telephone and telegraph and thus allowing stations to send voice and telegraph messages over a single wire. The device was so successful that he later sold it to the American Bell Telephone Company. (As a black inventor, Woods had difficulty in marketing his inventions and had little choice but to sell them to white-owned corporations.)

In 1887, Woods developed a telegraph that allowed for messages to be sent from moving trains and railway stations. By enabling dispatchers to know the location of each train, it provided for greater safety and a decrease in railway accidents.

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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.

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 patents for improvements to other inventions such as safety circuits, telegraphs, telephones, and phonographs. When he died on January 30, 1910 in New York City he had become an admired and well-respected inventor. Nevertheless, he spent the last years of his life in virtual poverty as he battled in court for control of his inventions.

You can learn more about Woods in the book Black Inventors in the Age of Segregation by Rayvon Fouchi.

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The author examines the life and work of three African Americans: Granville Woods (1856–1910), an independent inventor; Lewis Latimer (1848–1928), a corporate engineer with General Electric; and Shelby Davidson (1868–1930), who worked in the U.S. Treasury Department. Fouchi explains how each man used invention as a means to technical stature in a Jim Crow institutional setting. As Johns Hopkins University Press writes, “Fouchi provides a nuanced view of African American contributions to — and relationships with — technology during a period of rapid industrialization and mounting national attention to the inequities of a separate-but-equal social order.”

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14 Responses to April 23, 1856 – Birthday of Granville T. Woods, “The Black Edison”

  1. Julie P. says:

    What an incredible story — thanks for sharing!

  2. Care says:

    Thank you – I appreciate the introduction to this inventor. My husband, also an engineer, shares this birthday with Mr. Granville Woods.

  3. Sandy says:

    I love these posts, because I learn something, and have pieces of fact that I can carry around with me to bestow upon unsuspecting friends! Thanks once again for sharing with us!

  4. Alyce says:

    It’s amazing the things that are glossed over in American History. I had never heard of Granville Woods. While it was nice that he was admired and respected, it is so sad that he was living in poverty and fighting in courts for his rights until he died.

  5. Margot says:

    I love stories of people who educate themselves in any way possible. I’m sorry to say I’ve never heard of Granville Woods. Thank you for researching his story and sharing it with us.

  6. Bumbles says:

    I have heard of Mr. Woods – I saw a documentary about him somewhere along the way. Never judge a book by its cover, never judge people by their color.

  7. ds says:

    What a fascinating guy! We should all be carrying Woodphones as he clearly beat Steve Jobs by a healthy century. Thanks so much for sharing; I always learn something new here.

  8. Valerie says:

    Seems like Granville Woods was ahead of his time, it’s a shame he wasn’t recognized fully during his lifetime. I just looked in my copy of “African-American Firsts” by Joan Potter and he is there.

  9. Staci says:

    I do believe I have a biography of Woods in the library!!

    P.S. I think that is very strange that your name doesn’t show up in the list of commentors…you visit daily!!

  10. Lisa says:

    Edison was so notorious for stealing other people’s ideas–there are undoubtedly things that Woods discovered that Edison took credit for.

  11. JoAnn says:

    What an interesting post – I’d never heard of Granville Woods before. Glad to learn something new today. Thanks!

  12. I’d heard of Granville Woods but never seen the T-Shirt! Now I want it!

  13. I would be proud to wear a Granville Woods T-shirt. He was a truly extraordinary man for his time, and deserves greater recognition. I have featured him on my blog as well.

    Yvonne
    http://lifelinesproverbsliving.blogspot.com

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