Granville Tailer Woods (April 23, 1856 – January 30, 1910) was an American inventor who held more than 50 patents in the U.S. He was the first African American mechanical and electrical engineer after the Civil War. Self-taught, he concentrated most of his work on trains and streetcars. One of his notable inventions was a device he called the Synchronous Multiplex Railway Telegraph, a variation of induction telegraph which relied on ambient static electricity from existing telegraph lines to send messages between train stations and moving trains. His work assured a safer and better public transportation system for the cities of the United States.


Granville Tailer Woods (April 23, 1856 – January 30, 1910) was an American inventor who held more than 50 patents in the United States.[1] He was the first African American mechanical and electrical engineer after the Civil War.[2] Self-taught, he concentrated most of his work on trains and streetcars. One of his inventions is the Synchronous Multiplex Railway Telegraph, a variation of the induction telegraph that relied on ambient static electricity from existing telegraph lines to send messages between train stations and moving trains.[3]

Granville Tailer Woods
Illustration of Woods
Born(1856-04-23)April 23, 1856
Columbus, Ohio, United States
DiedJanuary 30, 1910(1910-01-30) (aged 53)
New York City, United States
Resting placeSt. Michael's (Episcopalian) Cemetery, East Elmhurst, New York

Early life

Granville T. Woods was born to Martha J. Brown and Cyrus Woods. He had a brother named Lyates and a sister named Rachel.[4][5] His mother was part Native American, and his father was African American.[6] Granville attended school in Columbus, Ohio, until age 10 but had to leave due to his family's poverty, which meant he needed to work;[7] he served an apprenticeship in a machine shop and learned the trades of machinist and blacksmith. Some sources of his day asserted that he also received two years of college-level training in "electrical and mechanical engineering", but little is known about where he might have studied.[8]


In 1872, Woods obtained a job as a fireman on the Danville and Southern Railroad in Missouri. He eventually became an engineer and in December 1874, moved to Springfield, Illinois, where he worked at a rolling mill, the Springfield Iron Works. He studied mechanical and electrical engineering in college from 1876 to 1878.[9]

In 1878, he took a job aboard the steamer "Ironsides" and became chief engineer within two years. When he returned to Ohio, he became an engineer with the Dayton and Southwestern Railroad in southwestern Ohio. In 1880, he moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, and established his business as an electrical engineer and an inventor. After receiving the multiplex telegraph patent, he reorganized his Cincinnati company as the Woods Electric Co. In 1892, he moved his research operations to New York City, where he was joined by his brother, Lyates Woods, who also had several inventions.[10]

Although the newspapers of his day generally referred to him as a bachelor,[4] Woods was married to Ada Woods, who was granted a divorce from him in 1891 due to adultery.[11]

Granville T. Woods was often described as an articulate and well-spoken man who was meticulous and stylish in his choice of clothing and preferred to dress in black.[12] At times, he would refer to himself as an immigrant from Australia,[13] in the belief that he would be given more respect if people thought he was from a foreign country, as opposed to African American. In his day, Black newspapers frequently expressed their pride in his achievements, saying he was "the greatest of Negro inventors",[14] and sometimes even calling him "professor", although there is no evidence he ever received a college degree.


1906 Woods Queen Victoria Electric

Granville T. Woods invented and patented Tunnel Construction for the electric railroad system and was referred to by some as the "Black Edison".[15][16][17][18][19] Over the course of his lifetime, Granville Woods obtained more than 50 patents for inventions including an automatic brake and an egg incubator and for improvements to other technologies such as the safety circuit, telegraph, telephone, and phonograph.[20]

Woods national electric woods 1916WOODS Gasoline-Electric engine

In 1884, Woods received his first patent, for a steam boiler furnace,[21] and in 1885, Woods patented an apparatus that was a combination of a telephone and a telegraph. The device, which he called "telegraphony", would allow a telegraph station to send voice and telegraph messages through Morse code over a single wire. He sold the rights to this device to the American Bell Telephone Company.[22][page needed] In 1887, he patented the Synchronous Multiplex Railway Telegraph, which allowed communications between train stations from moving trains by creating a magnetic field around a coiled wire under the train. Woods caught smallpox prior to patenting the technology, and Lucius Phelps[note 1] patented it in 1884. In 1887, Woods used notes, sketches, and a working model of the invention to secure the patent.[23][24] The invention was so successful that Woods began the Woods Electric Company in Cincinnati, Ohio, to market and sell his patents. However, the company quickly became devoted to invention creation until it was dissolved in 1893.[22] Thomas Edison later filed a claim to the ownership of this patent,[25] stating that he had first created a similar telegraph and that he was entitled to the patent for the device, and Woods often had difficulties in enjoying his success as other inventors made claims to his devices. Woods was twice successful in defending himself, proving that there were no other devices upon which he could have depended or relied upon to make his device. After Thomas Edison's second defeat, he decided to offer Granville Woods a position with the Edison Company, but Woods declined.[26][citation needed]

In 1888, Woods manufactured a system of overhead electric conducting lines for railroads modeled after the system pioneered by Charles van Depoele,[27] a famed inventor who had by then installed his electric railway system in thirteen United States cities.[28][citation needed]

Following the Great Blizzard of 1888, New York City Mayor Hugh J. Grant declared that all wires, many of which powered the above-ground rail system, had to be removed and buried, emphasizing the need for an underground system.[29] Woods's patent built upon previous third rail systems, improving the safety by using wire brushes to make connections with metallic terminal heads without exposing wires by installing electrical contactor rails. Once the train car had passed over, the wires were no longer live, reducing the risk of injury.[30][31][32] It was successfully tested in February 1892 in Coney Island on the Figure Eight Roller Coaster.[33][34] It is often stated that Woods invented underground third rail systems - this is false, as many other inventors were active in the field at the time and Woods ultimately only made small contributions.[35] Later that year, he was arrested and charged with libel after taking out an advertisement in a trade magazine warning against patronizing the American Engineering Company of New York City. The company had provided funds for Woods to market the invention, but a crucial component of the invention was missing from the deal, which the manager of the company, James S. Zerbe, later stole. A jury acquitted Woods, but Zerbe had already patented the design, which was valued at $1 million, in Europe.[31][36][23] Woods patented the invention in 1893,[32] and in 1901, he sold it to General Electric.[22]

Granville T. Woods improved the Westinghouse air brake and subway tunnels

In 1896, Woods created a system for controlling electrical lights in theaters, known as the "safety dimmer",[37][22][38] which was economical, safe, and efficient, saving 40% of electricity use.

Woods is also sometimes credited with the invention of the air brake for trains in 1904; however, George Westinghouse patented the air brake almost 40 years prior, making Woods's contribution an improvement to the invention.[39][40]

Death and legacy

Granville T. Woods grave marker in St. Michael's Cemetery

Woods died of a cerebral hemorrhage at Harlem Hospital in New York City on January 30, 1910, having sold a number of his devices to such companies as Westinghouse, General Electric, and American Engineering. Woods was interred at St. Michael's Cemetery in Elmhurst, Queens in an unmarked grave. Historian M.A. Harris helped raise funds, persuading several of the corporations that used Woods's inventions to donate money in order to purchase a headstone, which was erected at Woods's gravesite in 1975.[20]

Baltimore City Community College established the Granville T. Woods scholarship in memory of the inventor.[41][42]

In 2004, the New York City Transit Authority organized an exhibition on Woods that utilized bus and train depots and an issue of four million MetroCards commemorating the inventor's work on third rail electrification.[43]

In 2006, Woods was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.[44]

In 2008, the corner of Stillwell and Mermaid Avenues in Brooklyn was named Granville T. Woods Way to honor Woods.[34] Its location is situated across Stillwell Avenue, opposite the Coney Island–Stillwell Avenue rail and bus terminal.[45]


  1. ^ Lucius Joshua Phelps is the father of Earle B. Phelps (1876—1953), the American chemist, bacteriologist and sanitation expert.


  1. ^ "Granville Woods". The Black Inventor On-Line Museum. Archived from the original on November 19, 2012.
  2. ^ "Interesting Statistics of the Coloured Race". Arizona sentinel and Yuma weekly examiner. Yuma, Arizona, United States Of America. May 9, 1912. page 2, column 3.
  3. ^ "Granville Woods". The National Inventors Hall of Fame. 2006. Retrieved February 25, 2020.
  4. ^ a b Sinclair, Abiola (February 23, 1991). "Black Man and the Railroad". Amsterdam News. New York. p. 32.
  5. ^ "Rachel Woods Madison portrait|VFM_2716AV_03_1". Retrieved February 27, 2022.
  6. ^ "Granville T. Woods, Electrician and Mechanical Engineer". Indianapolis (IN) Freeman. February 16, 1856. p. 1.
  7. ^ Cotton, Dwayne A. (July 17, 1985). "Granville T. Woods: The Black Thomas Edison". Norfolk (VA) New Journal and Guide. p. 14.
  8. ^ "Granville T. Woods, the First Coloured Electrician". New Orleans Weekly Pelican. November 5, 1887. p. 2.
  9. ^ Simmons (1887), p. 108.
  10. ^ "Granville T. Woods Biography". Biography.
  11. ^ "Mrs. Woods Divorced". The Cincinnati Enquirer. October 16, 1891. p. 8. Retrieved February 17, 2020 – via  
  12. ^ "Black Edison". Kansas City (KS) American Citizen. May 9, 1902. p. 1.
  13. ^ "Granville F. Woods". Coffeyville (KS) Afro-American Advocate. April 29, 1892. p. 4.
  14. ^ "Patents to Negroes". Indianapolis (IN) Freeman. October 17, 1908. p. 4.
  15. ^ "'Black Edison's' Patents". Boston Sunday Journal. Boston, Massachusetts. April 20, 1902. page 2, col. 4.
  16. ^ "Black Edison". The American Citizen. Kansas City, Kansas. page 1, cols. 1-2.
  17. ^ "The 'Black Edison'". The Evening Press. Grand Rapids, Michigan. June 7, 1902. page 10, col. 2.
  18. ^ Baker, Henry E. (November 14, 1903). "Inventions of the Negro". The Coloured American. Washington, D.C. page 3, col. 3 – via Library of Congress, Chronicling America. reprinted from The New York Evening Post (New York City)
  19. ^ Murray, Daniel (December 30, 1904). "Colour Problem in the United States". The Seattle Republican. Seattle, Washington. p. 2 – via Library of Congress, Chronicling America.
  20. ^ a b "Tribute Paid to Black Inventor". NY Times. April 24, 1975. Retrieved February 8, 2020.
  21. ^ Christopher, Michael C. (1981). "Granville T. Woods: The Plight of a Black Inventor". Journal of Black Studies. 11 (3): 269–276. doi:10.1177/002193478101100301. ISSN 0021-9347. JSTOR 2784179. S2CID 144009438.
  22. ^ a b c d Haber, Louis (1991). Black Pioneers of Science and Invention. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN 978-0-15-208566-7 – via Google Books.
  23. ^ a b "Granville T. Woods, Inventor Known as 'Black Edison'". The New York Times. January 31, 2019. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved February 8, 2020.
  24. ^ United States 373915, G. T. Woods, "Signments", issued 1887-11-29 
  25. ^ United States. 307,984, Lucius. J[oshua]. Phelps, "Communicating to and from Moving Vehicles by Electricity", issued 11 November 1884 
  26. ^ "Granville Woods". Heartland Science. Retrieved September 27, 2020.
  27. ^ Middleton, William D. (1967). The Time of the Trolley, pp. 63–65, 67. Milwaukee: Kalmbach Publishing. ISBN 0-89024-013-2.
  28. ^ "Granville T. Woods: Inventor and Innovator | US Department of Transportation". Retrieved September 27, 2020.
  29. ^ Rasmussen, Frederick N. "Back Story: In late 1800s, New York City buried wires after a natural disaster". The Baltimore Sun. Retrieved February 17, 2020.
  30. ^ "(untitled)". The Salina Sun. April 16, 1892. p. 2. Retrieved February 17, 2020 – via  
  31. ^ a b "Electricians in Court". Times Union. Brooklyn, New York. April 2, 1892. p. 1. Retrieved February 17, 2020 – via  
  32. ^ a b US 509065, Granville T. Woods, "Electric-railway conduit", issued 1893-11-21 
  33. ^ "(untitled)". Miners Journal. February 22, 1892. p. 2. Retrieved February 17, 2020 – via  
  34. ^ a b "Granville T. Woods". Coney Island History Project. August 31, 2015. Retrieved February 17, 2020.
  35. ^ Chan, Sewell (December 26, 2004). "About a Third-Rail Pioneer, Gallant Disagreement". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved February 17, 2020.
  36. ^ "Says it is His Patent". The Brooklyn Citizen. March 7, 1892. p. 2. Retrieved February 17, 2020 – via  
  37. ^ US 569443, Granville T. Woods, issued 1896-10-13 
  38. ^ US 569443, Granville T. Woods, issued October 13, 1896 
  39. ^ U.S. patent 88,929 George Westinghouse, Jr., "Improvement in steam-power-brake devices ", issued 13 April 1869.
  40. ^ Taborn, Tyrone (1983). "Publisher's Page". Umoja Sasa. 7 (1): 6. ISSN 2472-0674. JSTOR 43690984.
  41. ^ "Granville T. Woods Scholars Program". Baltimore City Community College. Retrieved June 19, 2020.
  42. ^ "(advertisement) Baltimore City Community College is proud to announce the Granville T. Woods Scholars Program". The Baltimore Sun. February 4, 2002. p. T8 – via  
  43. ^ Chan, Sewell (December 26, 2004). "About a Third-Rail Pioneer, Gallant Disagreement". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved February 17, 2020.
  44. ^ "NIHF Inductee Granville Woods Invented Railroad Telegraph". Retrieved February 17, 2020.
  45. ^ "MTA Neighborhood Maps: Coney Island" (PDF). Metropolitan Transportation Authority. 2015. Retrieved February 25, 2024.

Further reading

  • Fouché, Prof. Rayvon (2003). "Liars and Thieves: Granville T. Woods and the Process of Invention". Black Inventors in the Age of Segregation: Granville T. Woods, Lewis H. Latimer, and Shelby J. Davidson. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press. pp. 26–81. ISBN 0-8018-7319-3 – via
  • Frost, Gary L. (2004). "Granville T. Woods". In Gates, Henry Louis; Higginbotham, Evelyn Brooks (eds.). African American Lives. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 910.
  • Haley, James T. (1895). Afro-American Encyclopedia; or, the Thoughts, Doings, and Sayings of the Race. Nashville, TN: Haley & Florida. p. 22.
  • Hall, Alonzo Louis (1907). The Ancient, Medieval, and Modern Greatness of the Negro. Memphis, TN: Striker Print. p. 158.
  • Head, David L. (2013). Granville T. Woods: African-American Communications and Transportation Pioneer. Pittsburgh, PA: RoseDog Books.

External links

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