When called upon to name one of America’s greatest inventors, most people mention names like Alexander Graham Bell and the telephone or Thomas Alva Edison and his achievements ranging from the electric light to the phonograph. However, a contemporary of those two greats who most people do not know about is a Black man by the name of Granville T. Woods.
A sound argument can be made that Woods’ inventive genius was equal to if not superior to that of both Bell and Edison. During his brief life (he died at 53) Woods with the aid of his brother Lyates registered over 65 patents for electrical, mechanical, and communications devices which today we take for granted with virtually no awareness of their connection to Granville T. Woods. His inventions ranged from the electrified third rail common to most subway systems worldwide to 12 devices which modernized the railroad to an advanced telephone transmitter.
Woods’ “advanced telephone transmitter” was so advanced in fact that Alexander Graham Bell’s company purchased the rights to it from Woods both because it was superior to what Bell had invented and out of fear that Woods might become a major competitor to the Bell company. Woods called his invention “telegraphony” featuring a combination of the best of the telegraph and the telephone.
Selling his invention to the Bell Company gave Woods the money he needed to spend full time as an inventor. He added air brakes and an egg hatching machine to his list of inventions during this period.
In 1887, he patented the Synchronous Multiplex Railway Telegraph which for the first time allowed communications between train stations and moving trains. It was this invention that ran him afoul of the powerful Thomas Alva Edison – the man generally considered America’s most prolific inventor. Despite his own genius, Edison was a hard nose capitalist who had a penchant for suing other inventors and claiming their inventions. Edison sued Woods charging that he (Edison) was the first to invent the multiplex telegraph. After a costly court battle, Woods won the case. But even after losing to Woods, Edison remained so impressed with him that he offered the Black genius a partnership in one of his companies. In order to maintain his independence, Woods rejected the offer.
Woods’ success is even more astounding when you factor in from whence he came. Born on April 23, 1856 in Columbus, Ohio, Woods did not receive any formal education beyond age 10. At 10, he began an apprenticeship in a machine shop. Later he worked in a rail yard where he fell in love with trains. Thirty-five of his patents related to improvements in electric railway cars. He eventually moved to Cincinnati, Ohio where he, along with his brother, launched his own company – Woods Railway Telegraph Company.
Besides the tendency of American historians to forget or ignore the achievements of great men and women of color, another reason Woods is not widely known is because he sold most of his inventions to General Electric, Westinghouse, and the Bell Telephone Company.
Nevertheless, his inventive genius was widely known and publicized in the late 1800’s. At his height, the Cincinnati, OhioCatholic Tribune (January 14, 1886) wrote of Woods: “… the greatest colored inventor in the history of the race and equal, if not superior, to any inventor in the country …”