Granville T. Woods
Woods, Granville T. 1856–1910
Granville T. Woods 1856–1910
Within the landscape of the American Industrial Revolution, in the field of urban electrification and communication, stand prominent inventors such as Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and Alexander Graham Bell. Their place is recognized, their achievements heralded. But they are not alone. Obscured by the shadows of history, and even more by the dark denial of recognition, is the figure of Granville T. Woods, a contemporary of Edison, Westinghouse, and Bell and one of that era’s most prolific and substantive inventors.
At the time of his death in 1910, Woods had been granted approximately 60 patents, mostly relating to electrical subjects. His inventions revolutionized railway and telegraph communication and ironically helped in the growth of his competitors’ companies—General Electric, Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing, and American Bell Telephone. At the time of his death, though, Woods was virtually penniless.
“Before the Civil War, slavery and racial sentiments did much to hamper the recognition of black inventors,” Michael C. Christopher explained in the Journal of Black Studies. “Slaves were not allowed to receive patents or assign them to others. Because slaves were not citizens, they were not allowed to enter into contracts with the government or private citizens.” The end of the U.S. Civil War in 1865 provided black inventors legal recognition, but it failed to foster complete social acceptance. Bound by legal restrictions to acknowledge black inventors after the war, white society merely altered its view of these individuals: adhering to the racist notion that blacks lacked the higher capacity to create and invent, many whites attributed black ingenuity to the white bloodlines so frequently present in people of color. This flagrant altering of personal history was further perpetuated by some black inventors themselves who “refused to acknowledge they were black because they feared a decline in the commercial value of their inventions if their ethnic background was publicized,” Christopher pointed out. Following the war, then, the identity of black inventors was accepted, but their past—who they really were—was not.
Woods was born into this culture of division on April 23, 1856, in Columbus, Ohio, five years before the start of the Civil War. But he was born a free black because the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 prohibited slavery from the territory that included the future state of Ohio. Beginning shortly after its admission to the Union in 1803, however, Ohio adopted “Black Codes,” or laws that restricted the participation of
Born April 23, 1856, in Columbus, OH; died January 30, 1910, in New York City; son of Tailer and Martha Woods. Education: Studied mechanical and electrical engineering at an East Coast college, 1876-78.
Apprenticed as a machinist and blacksmith in Columbus, OH, 1866-72; worked as a fireman and then as an engineer for the Iron Mountain Railroad in Missouri, 1872-74; worked in a rolling mill in Springfield, IL, 1874-76; part-time machine shop worker in New York City, 1876-78; engineer aboard the British steamer Ironsides, 1878-80; ran a steam locomotive on the Danville and Southern Railroad in Cincinnati, OH, 1880-84; founder, with brother, Lyates, of the Woods Electric Company in Cincinnati, 1884; worked as an inventor in New York City, 1890-1910.
Granted first patent, June 3, 1884, for a steam boiler furnace; received approximately 60 additional patents (over 35 dealing with electrical systems), including 15 in the field of electric railways. Major inventions included an improved telephone transmitter, 1884; an electrical apparatus for transmitting messages, 1885; an induction telegraph system, 1887; a galvanic battery, 1888; an automatic safety cut-out for electric currents, 1889; a re-electric railway supply system, 1893; a regulator for electric motors, 1896; an egg incubator, 1900; and an automatic air brake, 1902. Many of Woods’s patents were assigned to General Electric Company, American Bell Telephone Company, Westinghouse Air Brake Company, and American Engineering Company.
Awards: Elementary Public School No. 335, Brooklyn, NY, was dedicated in Woods’s name, 1969; Governor John J. Gilligan of Ohio issued a proclamation recognizing Woods’s achievements in science and invention, October 11, 1974.
blacks in the state militia, in public education, and in certain legal matters. By the time Woods began attending school, the state had modified its ban on public education, but the lives of blacks were still severely regulated: at the age of ten, Woods was forced to leave school and apprentice as a machinist and blacksmith in a machine shop. Child labor laws would not come into effect for another seventy years.
Woods’s lifelong interest and education—mostly self-taught—in electrical and mechanical engineering began in this machine shop. He absorbed as much information as he could about the workings of a machine he ran. Others he learned about simply by watching. And still other times, so deep was his desire for knowledge, he used his own earnings to pay the master mechanic at the shop for private instruction. With each subsequent job, Woods learned more, and his increased knowledge gained him more skilled positions.
In 1872, at the age of sixteen, Woods left Ohio and, in what can be best described as his travel-and-study period, worked various jobs around the country, augmenting the practical knowledge gained from those positions with readings at night. His first stop was at the Iron Mountain Railroad in Missouri, where he worked as a fireman and, later, an engineer. His interest in electricity and its application to railroads began there. In 1874, he moved to Springfield, Illinois, to work in a rolling mill.
Woods’s study and working knowledge of mechanics and electricity enabled him in 1876 to qualify to take courses in mechanical and electrical engineering at an eastern college. Working during the day in a New York City machine shop, Woods attended classes at night for two years. He left school in 1878 and signed on as an engineer aboard a British steamer, the Ironsides, embarking on a two-year tour that took him to nearly every continent in the world. In 1880 he returned to the United States to work as a steam locomotive engineer for the Danville and Southern Railroad in Cincinnati, Ohio, a position he held for four years.
Although his work record and his education should have entitled him to more responsible positions, he was constantly denied them. “Not only did he have to face a lack of advancement in his jobs because of his color,” Jim Haskins wrote in Outward Dreams, “but there was no means by which he could ever achieve a position of influence while working for others.” The Civil War had been over for almost twenty years, but the climate in the country had hardly stirred. Fortunately, his knowledge of mechanical and electrical applications gained from his years of journeyman work proved fruitful for Woods. In 1884 he received his first patent, for a more efficient version of a steam boiler furnace. That same year, along with his brother Lyates, Woods opened the Woods Electric Company in Cincinnati to produce and market his own inventions. He had begun his defining career as an inventor.
The legalities of patent assignment and regulation did not work to Woods’s advantage. The U.S. Government grants patents for any new or useful machine or process or manufacturing method, or for an improvement of any previous machine or process or method. A patent gives its owner, the patentee, the sole right to manufacture, use, and sell that particular invention. Patents are, in a sense, recognized as personal property. If others try to make, use, or sell a patentee’s invention, they are guilty of patent infringement and may be sued by the patentee. There are two instances, however, when an inventor may lose his right to a patent for his invention. First, if an inventor does not have enough money to manufacture and market his invention, the patent is then assigned, or sold, to another individual or company that has the necessary capital. Second, the inventor may simply wish to sell his patent outright. In either case, once the patent is assigned to someone else, the inventor gives up all legal and monetary claims to that invention.
Woods’s first two electrical inventions dealt with sound transmission. In December of 1884 he was granted a patent for a telephone transmitter, an apparatus that conducted sound over an electrical current. Alexander Graham Bell had already developed a telephonic device almost a decade earlier, but Woods’s instrument far surpassed any models then in use, carrying a louder and more distinct sound over a longer distance. The physical properties by which the device operated are still employed in modern telephones. Despite Woods’s visionary achievement, patent guidelines dictated that the patent be assigned to a company that had the mechanical and monetary means to manufacture such a device. The patent was assigned to the American Bell Telephone Company.
Less than a year later, Woods was granted a patent for a mechanism he called a “telegraphony,” a combination telegraph and telephone, which could transmit both oral and signal messages. Prior to Woods’s invention, the telegraph could only send messages over an electrical current utilizing a combination of short and long pulses (commonly referred to as dots and dashes) that represent letters of the alphabet. Developed by Samuel Morse in 1838, this “Morse code,” as it came to be known, became the language of the telegraph. It therefore demanded that operators on either end of a telegraphic transmission be fully versed in both Morse code and in the operation of the sending key apparatus.
Woods’s invention, however, gave almost everyone, regardless of their knowledge of telegraphs, the chance to send messages. If a person were unfamiliar with Morse code, he simply could flip a switch on the telegraph and speak near the sending key. The message would then be heard on the receiving end as articulate speech. Because of the understandable great demand for such an invention, Woods decided to sell his patent, allowing a larger company to manufacture the device. He was paid generously for the patent by the American Bell Telephone Company.
Over the next 25 years, Woods’s inventions were numerous and varied, from an incubator that provided a constant temperature for the hatching of chicks to a series of tracks used by motor vehicles at amusement parks. “Woods also invented an improved system for transferring electric current to street cars,” Portia P. James explained in The Real McCoy. “He designed a grooved wheel that allowed the car to receive the electrical current while reducing friction. This wheel, called a troller, is the source of the popular name for a street car, trolley car.” Woods held over 35 patents on electromechanical devices, a dozen of which improved the electric railway system. But his greatest invention improved electrical communication between trains.
On November 29,1887, Woods received a patent for his Induction Telegraph System, also called the Synchronous Multiplex Railway Telegraph. Communication between moving trains and between a moving train and a railroad station had previously been poor. In a telegraph system, a continuous wire must exist between a sending key and a receiving sounder. Ordinary telegraph wires were usually run along railroad tracks, but for a telegraph system to work aboard the train, part of the train had to have been in constant contact with these wires. Because of the jostling movement of trains, most messages sent or received were incomplete. Numerous times, warnings of washed-out bridges, rock slides, and other obstructions failed to reach a train in time. Still other times, trains learned too late—or not at all—of the location of other trains on the same track.
Woods’s Induction Telegraph invention changed the course of railway travel, dramatically decreasing the number of lives lost in accidents. To realize his invention, he applied Faraday’s Law of Electromagnetic Induction: an oblong coil was suspended beneath a train, and an electrical current was passed through it. In turn, a magnetic field developed around the train. When the train moved, the field moved with it and induced a similar current in the telegraph wires that ran along the tracks, allowing telegraphic messages to be sent and received uninterrupted.
Woods was greatly heralded for this invention, but he received even greater renown when Thomas Edison and another inventor, Lucius Phelps, challenged Woods’s rights to the patent, claiming in separate legal suits that they each had developed a similar telegraph system before Woods. In both cases, Woods was declared the prior inventor. Nonetheless, his legal troubles did not end there. In 1892 Woods was sued for criminal libel after he claimed that a manager of the American Engineering Company stole his patent for an electric railway. He was jailed briefly when he could not post money for bail.
His payment of large legal fees, both in the challenge and defense of patent rights, and his loss of income from his inventions left Woods in poverty at the end of his life. As the owner of a small company, he could hardly compete with the larger corporations like those of Edison and Bell. And as a black inventor, Woods could not hope to receive the deserved public recognition his white counterparts did.
All this, however, did little to diminish his intellectual and creative output. Three years after Woods’s death, Henry E. Baker, second assistant examiner at the U.S. Patent Office and an African American, wrote a telling epitaph in his book The Colored Inventor: “Mr. Woods is, perhaps, the best known of all the inventors whose achievements [add to] to the credit of our race; and in his passing away he has left us the rich legacy of a life successfully devoted to the cause of progress.”
Baker, Henry E., The Colored Inventor, Crisis Publishing Company, 1913, reprinted, Arno Press, 1969.
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Jackson, W. Sherman, “Granville T. Woods: Railway Communications Wizard, 1856–1910,” in American Black Scientists and Inventors, edited by Edward S. Jenkins, National Science Teachers Association, 1975.
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Woods, Granville T.
Australian-born American inventor Granville T. Woods (1856-1910), dubbed “the black Edison,” contributed key inventions to several of the technologies that defined the modern era, including railroad braking, electric railroad systems, and telephony and telegraphy.
During his own life, Woods had to struggle not just for recognition but for financial solvency. He came from modest origins, worked independently, and had no way to market his inventions on his own. For most of his life he had to seek out associates and allies in order to try to realize financial gains from his work. Those allies, well aware of the value of Woods's inventions, used a variety of subterfuges to try to wrest his intellectual property from him, but through a series of lengthy court struggles he resisted their efforts. Woods's story offers many insights into the conditions faced by African-American inventors—and into the roles played by inventors in general during an age when the solo inventor was being supplanted by a different kind of figure, the engineer, employed by a large corporation.
Born in Australia
Many details of Woods's early life have been obscured by contradictory stories told about him, sometimes by Woods himself. His birthplace has often been given as Columbus, Ohio, but his biographer, Rayvon Fouché, relying on census records, Woods's death certificate, and detailed journalistic accounts of Woods's life published in the 1890s, has concluded that he was born in Australia on April 23, 1856. He was of a mixed ethnic background that probably included Australian Aboriginal, Malay, and African elements. As a foreign-born black person, Woods, like other black immigrants, likely found American racial prejudice especially difficult to take. Fouché noted that his “combative spirit, the forthright manner in which he interacted with whites, and his fearless public challenges to white authority—all of which, because of the severe consequences, most African Americans avoided well into the 20th century—indicate that he did not consider himself an American Negro.”
It is not known exactly when Woods came to the United States, nor what kind of formal education he received. He apparently spent some time in Columbus. Earlier biographies of Woods have reported that he left school at age ten to learn the trades of machinist and blacksmith, continuing to supplement his education by persuading white friends to check out textbooks from libraries that barred him from entering because of his skin color. In later testimony, however, he said that he began working as a machinist at age 15. He is said to have gone west to work on a railroad, perhaps the Iron Mountain Railroad in Missouri, to have worked in a mill in Springfield, Illinois, and to have attended an engineering college in the eastern United States. One magazine stated that Woods claimed to be a graduate of the electrical department of Stern's Institute of Technology; another article, quoted by Fouché, stated that “Mr. Woods has a first-class English education, and is an experienced mechanic, having received special training in mechanical engineering.” In the year 1878 Woods is variously reported to have served as an engineer on a British ship called the Ironsides and to have worked for the Pomeroy Railroad Company in southwestern Ohio.
Reliable records of Woods's activities from the late 1870s onward are available in the form of court testimony he later gave about his creative work as an inventor, largely unearthed by Fouché's research. He apparently moved from the Pomeroy Railroad to the Dayton and Southeastern Railroad around 1879, working there for 13 months and being entrusted with shifting cars in a rail yard in the town of Washington Court House, Ohio, northeast of Cincinnati. He stated that a friendly telegraph operator there instructed him in the scientific fundamentals of telegraphy, but the inventions that he was soon to devise suggested that, however fast he may have been as a learner, he had at some point received more training as an electrical engineer than could be gleaned from a few sessions in a telegraph operator's booth. What seems certain is that Woods obtained a strong working knowledge of the two hottest technologies of the 1880s, railroads and electronic communications. His technical expertise probably explained the relative prestige of the railroad jobs he held as a young man; most African Americans in southern Ohio, a region that reflected the attitudes of points farther south, were relegated to sheer manual labor at the time.
In 1880 Woods experienced the first instance of a problem that would plague him throughout most of his working life: he left the Dayton and Southeastern Railroad after the company failed to pay him the salary he had earned. They issued scrip that local merchants either refused to accept or devalued with huge surcharges. That year, Woods settled in Cincinnati and, possibly working with a brother, Lyates, started a small firm called the Woods Electrical Company. He began to explore the phenomenon of induction, the process of causing an electrical current in a conductor by generating or varying a nearby electromagnetic field. One of his earliest experiments produced an induction-based elevator signaling system, and he began showing drawings of the system to well-heeled Cincinnatians whom he saw as potential investors.
Suffered from Smallpox
Woods's career was soon interrupted, however: in the summer of 1881 he contracted smallpox, which was in its last years as a major threat in the United States. Often fatal, the disease sidelined Woods for most of a year and left him with chronic kidney and liver disease that may have been factors in his early death. Apparently Woods was married at this point; he spoke of having to take extreme measures in order to support his family. Unable to do sustained creative work, he found employers unwilling to hire him in his weakened condition. The only job he could find was at the Queen City Facing Mills, and that company, too, refused to pay him the salary it had agreed on. Woods launched a lengthy court action that recovered only $20 in the end.
By late 1882 and 1883 Woods was once again at work on new inventions. The first patent he received, in 1884, was for an improved type of steam boiler, and he also registered patents on a new telephone signal transmitter and an ingenious process combining features of a telephone and a telegraph machine that he called telegraphony. Rights to that invention were later acquired by Alexander Graham Bell's telephone company. Despite the flow of creative ideas he was experiencing, Woods lacked even the $15 fee necessary to file patents on these inventions. In cases where he did succeed, it was because Cincinnati investors and attorneys, who were becoming aware of his talents and alert to the possibility of a big payoff, fronted him the money.
Woods forged ahead, and by 1885 he had fleshed out his ideas for a true breakthrough invention called the Synchronous Multiplex Railway Telegraph. The system used induction to transmit telegraph messages from moving trains to wires running beside the tracks, thus enabling railroad personnel to monitor the locations of trains in the system—the previous impossibility of which had been the cause of numerous collisions. Woods and another inventor, Lucius J. Phelps, apparently conceived of such a system independently. Woods read of Phelps's work in Scientific American magazine and refined his own invention into a system with a wider scope. Using a borrowed battery at the headquarters of the Cincinnati Medicated Mud Bath Company, he constructed a working model, and once again he attracted the attention of well-heeled investors.
The railway telegraph was patented in 1887, but not before Woods had become embroiled in an expensive patent interference proceeding—an attempt by the U.S. Patent Office to determine priority among competing claims—in which Phelps asserted his rights to the invention. The process further sapped Woods's meager financial resources but did bring him a measure of publicity. A Catholic Tribune article quoted by Fouché even called him “the greatest inventor in the history of his race, and equal, if not superior to, any inventor in the country.” That led two investors, John Gano and Ralph Peters, to back a second Woods Electric Company, this one located across the Ohio River in Kentucky. Meanwhile, Woods had received feelers from the Westinghouse Corporation about a railroad air brake he had developed.
Relationship with Investors Deteriorated
Woods's relationship with Gano and Peters quickly deteriorated, as Woods alleged that they failed to pay him his agreed-upon salary of $50 a month, plus stock options, and did not reimburse him for trips to New York undertaken to promote his inventions. That led to a second set of lawsuits, complicated by the fact that two entities, one in Ohio and one in Kentucky, bore the name Woods Electric Company. By 1890 Woods had managed to sever his ties from Gano and Peters, but he was once again almost penniless.
Woods decided he had to move to New York, the center of American electronics engineering. Over the next ten years, the pattern of his life in Cincinnati repeated itself. Working first as an elevated railway porter for $1.20 a day, and sending most of that money to an ailing sister, Woods shopped his ideas to investors. The key idea Woods worked on in the 1890s was an electric train system. The ancestor of both overhead-powered trams and the “third rail” trains of today, the system Woods had in mind carried enormous potential benefits for investors. Others worked on similar ideas, and Fouché has disputed the often-repeated statement that Woods was the inventor of the third-rail power system. However, with the help of partners in his newly formed American Engineering Company, Woods devised key components of an electric street railway that was built on New York's Coney Island.
Unfortunately, Woods once again found himself in the hands of less-than-honest partners who conspired to cheat him of profits due. His relationship with the American Engineering Company devolved into a violent scene in which Woods confronted company executive James Zerbe over the theft of some of his drawings and ended up in a physical altercation with Zerbe and his son. After a more lengthy court proceeding involving a libel suit filed by Zerbe against Woods—Woods was once again vindicated but drained his savings in defending himself—the partnership was dissolved. The only silver lining was that the court proceedings once again brought Woods a measure of favorable publicity. He succeeded in registering a few more patents, including one in 1900 for a large-scale chicken egg incubator.
The degree to which racism played a part in Woods's troubles remains an open question. Given the fact that the 1890s marked a low point in post–Civil War race relations, he clearly suffered the effects of racial prejudice, and his precarious financial standing resulted from his inability to call upon the sources of capital that would have been available to white inventors. However, the problems Woods faced were shared to some extent by white inventors, including Thomas Edison, and all over the United States and the world freelance inventors like Woods were losing ground to large corporations that had the legal and financial muscle to see the work of engineers through to financial profits.
Woods, in fact, first began to prosper after he worked out a closer arrangement with two of those large corporations, General Electric and Westinghouse, in the last years of his life. Working primarily through an intermediary, H. Ward Leonard, Woods registered 20 patents between 1900 and 1907, most of them for electronic train-control devices. Most of these patents were assigned to General Electric and Westinghouse. Woods was able to purchase a farm in Monsey, New York. He may have married again, with unhappy results. A news account cited by C.R. Gibbs in Black Inventors: From Africa to America stated that Woods had filed suit against a Poughkeepsie estate owner, the employer of a maid named Elizabeth who claimed to be married to Woods but said that he had abused her and that she wanted to stay on in her job. Just as Woods began to realize proper remuneration for his life's work, he suffered a stroke on January 28, 1910. He died at Harlem Hospital in New York two days later.
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