Granville Woods: The “Black Thomas Edison”
Updated: Feb 5
Referred to as the “Black Thomas Edison,” Granville Woods held over sixty patents in his lifetime. Thanks to the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which prohibited slavery in the area now known as Columbus, Ohio, Woods was born a freeman in 1856. In a rare situation for a Black child at the time, he received a formal education until the age of 10. He then spent his teen years picking up skills as a machinist, railroad worker, and steel mill worker.
Ever curious, Granville not only watched others ply their trade, he also paid co-workers to teach him about electrical concepts. He had White friends borrow library books on his behalf, since Blacks weren’t allowed in most libraries. Eventually, he was able to travel east and obtain two years of formal education in electrical engineering, though historical records don’t reveal the name or location of the school.
Woods obtained a position as an engineer on a British steamship and due to his remarkable talents, he was promoted to Chief Engineer. Unfortunately, when he returned to the U.S., prejudice often denied him opportunities and promotions.
Frustrated by these obstacles and believing in his own abilities, twenty-eight year old Granville partnered with his brother, Lyates, to form the Woods Railway Telegraph Company to manufacture telephones and telegraphs. Within the first year, he patented a device that allowed voice and telegraph messages to be sent over a single wire. The device was so successful that it was purchased by the American Bell Telephone Company. He followed that invention with a device that allowed messages to be sent from moving trains to railway stations. This gave a station dispatcher a new-found ability to know where each train was, which greatly reduced accidents and improved railway safety. Woods went on to develop an automatic brake and the third rail, an innovative way of delivering electricity to a train that’s still in use today.
As his success and reputation as an inventor grew, Granville Woods faced the growing problem of other inventors claiming his ideas as their own. Thomas Edison twice tried to claim patent rights to Woods’ ideas. However, Woods was able to successfully defend his patents both times, proving himself a formidable competitor. Eventually, Edison realized it would be better to have Woods work for him and he offered Granville a position with the Edison Company. Woods wisely chose to remain independent and turned Edison down.
During his thirty year career, Granville Woods successfully profited from his numerous patents and the sale of inventions to Westinghouse and General Electric. At the time of his death in 1910 at the age of fifty-three, Woods had earned a reputation as a respected inventor and businessman. He was perhaps as well known as his contemporaries, Thomas Edison and Nicola Tesla. It’s unfortunate that his contributions aren’t celebrated in schools in the same way as those of his White counterparts. But sharing his story, and the others that we’re sharing this month, can help right this wrong. Join us in re-balancing the stories we pass on so that our children learn that success, innovation, bravery and resilience know no color boundaries.
To learn more about Granville Woods, we recommend Black Inventor: Granville Woods, Thoughtco’s Granville Woods and MIT’s Granville Woods profile.