Granville T. Woods (1856-1910) spent his life working on improvements to the burgeoning electric railroad industry of the late nineteenth century. His inventions were so prolific that he is often known as "The Black Edison," but unlike Thomas Edison, Woods was considered fortunate to receive an education to help him on the road to his inventions because during this time period, few Black children ever saw the inside of a classroom.
Granville Tailer Woods was born on April 23, 1856 in Columbus, Ohio. Woods educated himself by working in railroad machine shops and steel mills, and by reading about electricity. He often had friends check out library books for him, since Black people were excluded from many libraries at the time. From 1876 to 1878, Woods lived in New York City, taking courses in engineering and electricity, subjects he determined were the keys to the future. Woods managed to scrape together enough knowledge of electrical engineering to invent "telegraphony," a process that was later purchased by Alexander Graham Bell's company.
Telegraphony combined features of both the telephone and telegraph (system for transmitting messages from a distance) by allowing operators to send and receive messages more quickly than before. The Bell Company's purchase of this invention enabled Woods to become a full-time inventor.
Among Woods’ later inventions was the multiplex telegraph. The device not only helped dispatchers locate trains, but also allowed moving trains to communicate by telegraph. This invention was so useful that Woods found himself fighting patent suits filed by none other than Thomas Edison. Woods eventually won, but Edison continued to pursue the telegraph by offering Woods a lucrative partnership in one of Edison's businesses. Woods refused, preferring to remain independent.
After he received his patent for the multiplex telegraph, Woods established the Woods Electric Co. in Cincinnati, Ohio. In 1890, he moved his company to New York City to join forces with his brother, Lyates Woods, also an inventor. His next highly regarded invention from 1901 was the power pick-up device, which is the basis for the “third rail” currently used by electric transit systems.
Granville T. Woods passed away on January 30, 1910 in New York City. Throughout his lifetime, Woods received nearly 60 patents. His legacy endures today as someone who vastly improved devices and communications for the electric railway system in the U.S. To accomplish this during a time period of extreme discrimination towards Black Americans, is particularly remarkable.