A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Our Rich History: Granville Woods, the black Thomas Edison, was noted inventor and held many patents

By John Schlipp
Special to NKyTribune

Part 61 of our series, “Resilience and Renaissance: Newport, Kentucky, 1795-2020.”

A note from the “Our Rich History” editor: In celebration of the beginning of Black History Month, we honor the vast achievements of African-American inventor, Granville Woods. Nationally acclaimed as the “Black Edison,” Woods first achieved notable success in the Cincinnati region.

In 1888 Granville Woods, a highly respected Black inventor, was “unmercifully beaten” by Louisville and Nashville Railroad (L&N) employees. Woods had purchased a first-class ticket on the L&N from Cincinnati to Nashville, and during the first leg of that journey to Louisville, sat in relative comfort in first class. Upon arriving in Louisville, however, a new crew “objected to a colored man riding through the ‘Dark and Bloody Ground’ [the South] in first-class style, and attempted to eject him from the car.” When Woods resisted, the crew beat him (“A Colored Man’s Rights,” Cincinnati Post, June 25, 1888, p. 4).

Of all the possible ironies in history, this incident should be recorded in the history books. After all, it was Granville Woods’ many inventions that literally made American railroads safe, fast, and efficient. One of his principal patents, in fact, enabled instantaneous telegraphic communication between the conductors of moving trains and station masters. Thanks to Woods, at any time railroads could keep track of where their trains were, thereby preventing unnecessary collisions.

Granville T. Woods. Source: The Evening Repository, March 12, 1892, p. 12.

By 1904 Granville Woods held 35 patents (“Brain to the Front,” Cleveland Gazette, April 23, 1904, p. 2). In the United States, a patent is a property right granted by the federal government. It gives an inventor the right to the benefits of commercialization of their invention. Patents provides innovators an incentive to invent by owning the fruits of their intellectual labor for a specified period of time.

Despite the huge hurdles in US history for minorities in obtaining patents, Granville T. Woods (1856-1910) was one of the most noteworthy African-American inventors of our region, as well as of the entire United States. As a Black man, he encountered substantial racial obstacles of his time. Ultimately, however, he prevailed, gaining an honorable title as “the Black Thomas Edison.”

Woods devoted his primary research to modernizing railway technology, and eventually was granted 45 US patents in his name. He received his first patent (US Patent 299,894) for new useful improvements in Steam-Boiler Furnaces while working as an electrical engineer in Cincinnati in 1884. A complete listing of patents issued to Granville Woods is available here.

Early biographies and contemporary newspaper accounts of his time reported that Woods was born in Columbus, Ohio, on April 23, 1856. Subsequently, recent research by Rayvon Fouché, author of Black Inventors in the Age of Segregation (2003), substantiates that Woods was likely born in Melbourne, Australia. This claim is substantiated by 1910 US census records, Woods’ death certificate, and other published accounts.

Woods’ maternal grandfather was of Malay Indian descent. His two other grandparents were Australian aborigines, while it is assumed by most researchers that his remaining grandparent was African American. All sources concur that Woods spent his childhood in Columbus, Ohio, where he and his parents were free Blacks.

While only 10 years old, Woods began to learn the machinist and blacksmith trades. His mechanical aptitude led to various jobs while he was a teenager, including the Danville and Southern Railroad in Missouri and at a rolling mill in Springfield, Illinois. Many biographical sketches and news stories maintain that he completed some type of electrical and mechanical engineering education in the eastern United States. Ultimately Woods gained a knowledge of the basic principles of electronics, chemistry, and physics (Michael C. Christopher, “Granville T. Woods: The Plight of a Black Inventor,” Journal of Black Studies, March 1981).

Woods arrived in Cincinnati in 1880, where he established his own machine shop. Soon he began to tinker with an idea about inductive communications, sometimes known as “wireless telegraphy.” Woods’ most significant patented inventions were developed in Cincinnati, including an apparatus for transmission of messages by electricity (US Patent 315,368) in 1885—which was purchased by American Bell Telephone Company of Boston. In 1887, Woods was granted patents for induction telegraphy (US Patent 373,915), also known as multiplex telegraphy, and an improvement in railway telegraphy (US Patent 373,383).

These inventions were fostered by Faraday’s Law of Electromagnetic Induction. The induction telegraph patent was the first that allowed moving trains to communicate while in transit. Michael Christopher states that “the invention of the Induction Telegraph saved countless lives in that it averted both major and minor catastrophes in railway travel (p. 273).” Woods marketed his innovative Induction Telegraph through the Woods Electric Company, which soon confronted an obstacle with Edison.

Lucius J. Phelps, of the Phelps Induction Telegraph Company, was a business partner and controller of Thomas Edison’s train telegraphy patents. Phelps contested Woods in a patent interference case for his induction telegraphy patent (US Patent 373,915). A patent interference is a dispute between inventors trying to patent the same invention. Phelps invented a similar concept published in the Scientific American journal in 1885. Woods offered evidence and witnesses to prove that he had developed his induction telegraphy invention first in 1881, four years before the Scientific American article, and three years before Phelps could prove his documented discovery in 1884. At that time, the United States Patent Office was a first-to-invent patent submission system, rather than a first-inventor-to-file provision as it is today. Phelps and Edison appealed the verdict, but Woods won again and obtained his induction telegraphy US patent in 1887.

US Patent 373,915 Induction Telegraph System, November 29, 1887. Source: US Patent and Trademark Office.

Woods’ connections to Bell and Edison brought notice with the general public. At that time, the January 14, 1886 edition of the Catholic Tribune acclaimed Woods as “the greatest inventor in the history of his race, and equal, if not superior to any inventor in the country … ” (Fauché, p. 51). Such notice prompted Cincinnati businessmen to support his Woods Electric Company of Ohio at 6 West Third Street in Cincinnati. A similar plant, the G. T. Woods Manufacturing Company, was incorporated in January 1889 in Newport, Kentucky (“Incorporation Notice,” Kentucky State Journal, January 3, 1889, p. 4). These companies manufactured electrical and mechanical products, such as switches, telegraph systems, and appliances. In addition, the Woods Electric Company of Cincinnati supported some of his patents.

Woods acquired a total of 17 US patents during his tenure in the Cincinnati region. Although he lived in a number of places throughout the Cincinnati area, African-American historian Theodore Harris states in his entry on Woods in The Encyclopedia of Northern Kentucky, that Woods lived on Lynn Street in Covington, Kentucky for a time.

In 1890, Granville Woods moved to New York City, along with his brother Lyates. There Woods patented additional inventions such as automatic air brakes (US Patent 701,981) and his innovative third-rail technology (US Patent 687,098). The third-rail invention is still used today by many electric-powered transit systems throughout the world.

Unfortunately, Woods met much resistance in the white business culture of his time, forcing him to often sell his patent rights prematurely to survive economically, rather than attempt to market his innovations to benefit his long-term financial standing. During the last ten years of Woods’ life, many of his patents were purchased by General Electric and Westinghouse. The fact that two of the largest corporations of that time bought Woods’ patents affirms the value of his breakthroughs and attests to his inventive intellect. Woods died on January 30, 1910 in New York City.

The brilliance of Granville Woods is celebrated today in accolades, books, media, and more. One of Woods’ original patent documents (US Patent 463,020) for an underground electrical railway line was sold to a history collector in 2020 by Sotheby’s auction for $3,500, along with blueprints and sketches of his other inventions.

Woods was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame® in 2006. His legacy also survives as a black scientist character who supports allies in fighting ghosts and evil spirits in a Victorian setting in the steampunk webcomic Boston Metaphysical Society. The American Institute of Physics published an educational lesson plan entitled African American Inventors in History. The lesson introduces students to the lives of celebrated black inventors such as our region’s Granville Woods to inspire young makers to create their own inventions.

To learn more about regionally famous African Americans, see the books Gateway City: Covington, Kentucky, 1815-2015 (Clerisy Press, 2015), the Kentucky African American Encyclopedia (University Press of Kentucky, 2015), and The Encyclopedia of Northern Kentucky (University Press of Kentucky, 2009).

John Schlipp (schlippj1@nku.edu) is an Intellectual Property Librarian and Professor of Library Science at W. Frank Steely Library at Northern Kentucky University (NKU). He is the manager of the regional IPAC (Intellectual Property Awareness Cooperative). The IPAC supports the region’s two designated PTRCs (Patent & Trademark Resource Centers) of Cincinnati and Kentucky including the Cincinnati Public Library and Steely Library’s Digital Scholarship & Communications service at NKU. Both PTRCs represent the US Patent & Trademark Office. PTRCs offers free assistance to everyone from inventors to musicians, to help one understand and utilize patents, trademarks, copyrights, and more.

Related Posts

Leave a Comment