Inventor Granville Woods: a snapshot biography

Black and white portrait of Granville Woods, a black American inventor, wearing formal attire with a patterned cravat and a coat with wide lapels. He has a mustache and is looking slightly to the right of the camera with a neutral expression.
Granville Woods

The 19th-century black inventor faced many obstacles in American society. Legal restrictions and public sentiment often led to inventions without credit or without opportunities to be commercialized. Yet, even with these challenges, black inventors brought immense genius and much effort to their work. One such inventor was Granville Tailor Woods.

Granville was born in Ohio in 1856. His America was one still mired in enslavement. Though because he was born in a free state, Granville himself never experienced the horrors.

But work-life did begin for Granville in his early years. At ten years old, he dropped out of school to work as an apprentice in a machine shop. Here, he learned to be a machinist and blacksmith. In his later teen years and early adult life, Granville worked as a fireman and studied to become a mechanical engineer. Then, he entered the invention business.

“Mr. Woods says that he has been frequently refused work because of the previous condition of his race, but he has had great determination and will and never despaired because of disappointments.” — Rev. William J. Simmons, Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive and Rising, 1887

June 3, 1884, marked an important milestone in Granville’s life. He earned his first patent. The invention was a steam boiler furnace. In general, Granville’s research tended to focus on identifying how to convert electricity into useful, efficient products. Two of his most notable inventions were a device that he named a “telegraphony”, which allowed communication by voice over telegraph wires, and an Induction Telegraph that helped trains communicate with stations and other trains about their whereabouts and problems on the track. One researcher stated the importance of this latter invention as,

“Rail travel was made much safer by this invention because it allowed dispatchers to note at a glance the location of any moving trains. Before Woods’ telegraph, trains had no assistance in locating the whereabouts of other moving trains, so accidents were frequent. The invention of the Induction Telegraph saved countless lives in that it averted both major and minor catastrophes in railway travel.”

Alexander Graham Bell purchased the first invention; Thomas Edison challenged the second in court. Granville successfully defended his patent and was offered a prominent job within Thomas’s company. Granville declined, preferring to work independently.

Granville’s invention prowess was remarkable. One publication called him “the greatest electrician in the world” in 1888. Today, people say he was an “electromechanical genius.” By the end of his career, Granville had earned about 50 patents. He passed away in 1910.

Notes:

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  • Story updated on December 28, 2023.

Sources:

  • Christopher, Michael C. “Granville T. Woods: The Plight of a Black Inventor.” Journal of Black Studies, vol. 11, no. 3, 1981, pp. 269–76. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2784179. Accessed 28 Dec. 2023.
  • KATZ, W. L. (1971) Eyewitness: The Negro in American History. New York: Pittman.
  • TOPPIN, E. A. (1971) A Biographical History of Blacks in America Since 1528. New York: McKay.
  • “Transit Innovator: Granville T. Woods.” New York Transit Museum. https://www.nytransitmuseum.org/granvilletwoods/