Granville T. Woods: The Black Edison

Portrait of inventor Granville T. Woods, The Booklovers Magazine, July 1903. Commons Wikimedia/Public Domain


In 1908, the Indianapolis Freeman proclaimed that Granville T. Woods was the “greatest of Negro Inventors.” With more than 50 patents to his name, Woods was known as the “Black Edison” for his ability to develop technology that would enhance the lives of people throughout the world.

Key Accomplishments

  • First African-American to be a mechanical and electrical engineer after the Civil War.
  • Notable inventions included the multiplex telegraph, the trolley wheel, and the power pick-up device.
  • Held more than 50 patents for various electrical inventions.

Early Life

Granville T. Woods was born on April 23, 1856, in Columbus, Ohio. His parents, Cyrus Woods and Martha Brown, were both free African-Americans.

At the age of ten, Woods stopped attending school and began working as an apprentice in a machinery shop where he learned to operate a machine and work as a blacksmith.

By 1872, Woods was working for the Danville and Southern Railroad based out of Missouri—first as a fireman and later as an engineer. Four years later, Woods moved to Illinois where he work at the Springfield Iron Works.

Granville T. Woods: Inventor

In 1880, Woods moved to Cincinnati. By 1884, Woods and his brother, Lyates had established Woods Railway Telegraph Company to invent and manufacture electrical machines.

When Woods patented the telegraphony in 1885, he sold the rights to the machine to the American Bell Telephone Company.

 In 1887 Woods invented the Synchronous Multiplex Railway Telegraph, allowing people riding trains to communicate via the telegraph. This invention not only helped to people communicate more efficiently, but it also helped train conductors to avoid train accidents.

The following year, Woods invented the overhead conducting system for the electric railway. The creation of the overhead conducting system led to the use of overhead electric trains used in Chicago, St. Louis and New York City.

By 1889, Woods had made significant improvements to a steam boiler furnace and filed a patent for the machine.

In 1890, Woods changed the name of the Cincinnati-based company to Woods Electric Co., and moved to New York City to pursue research opportunities. Significant inventions included the Amusement Apparatus, which was used on one of the first roller coasters, the electric incubator for chicken eggs and the power pickup device, which paved the way for the “third rail” currently used by electric powered trains.

Controversy and Lawsuits

 Thomas Edison filed a lawsuit against Woods claiming that he had invented the multiplex telegraph. However, Woods was able to prove that he was, in fact, the creator of the invention. As a result, Edison offered Woods a position in the engineering department of Edison Electric Light Company. Woods declined the offer.

Personal Life

Woods never married and in many historical accounts, he is described as a bachelor who was articulate and dressed in a sophisticated manner. He was a member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME).  

Death and Legacy

Woods died at the age of 54 in New York City. Despite his many inventions and patents, Woods was penniless because he dedicated much of his earnings to future inventions and to pay for his many legal battles. Woods was buried in an unmarked grave until 1975 when historian M.A. Harris persuaded corporations such as Westinghouse, General Electric and American Engineering that benefitted from Woods’ inventions to contribute to the purchase of a headstone.

Woods is buried in St. Michael’s Cemetery in Queens, NY.