By MURPHY BROWNE
Granville T. Woods was born in Columbus, Ohio on April 23, 1856 and lived in New York from 1890 until he transitioned on January 30, 1910. In the 2003 book Black Inventors in the Age of Segregation: Granville T. Woods, Lewis H. Latimer & Shelby J. Davidson, cultural historian of technology Dr. Rayvon D. Fouché describes Woods as the most prolific African-American inventor of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
An apt description since Woods is credited with more than 60 inventions in 30 years. He received his first patent in 1884 and over the next two decades was granted patents for approximately 60 inventions. In spite of the White supremacist culture of the USA which prevented him from accessing much formal education after age 10, Woods contributed to the technological advance of American and global societies.
Forced to leave school and enter the work force at age 10, Woods worked as an apprentice for a machine shop repairing railroad equipment and machinery. In 1872, he left the machine shop in Ohio to work at the St. Louis Iron Mountain and Southern Railway in Missouri, where he worked as a fireman and later as railroad engineer.
A fireman working on the railroad at that time was responsible for shoveling coal into the train engine’s boiler while the engineer was responsible for the operation of the train. In 1874, Woods moved to Springfield, Illinois, to work in a steel rolling mill, an industrial plant for the manufacture of steel.
In 1876, because of his years of on-the-job training and independent study of mechanics and electricity, Woods qualified to take courses in mechanical and electrical engineering at an eastern college. He left school in 1878 and signed on as an engineer aboard a British steamer, the Ironsides, where he worked for two years. In 1880 he returned to the United States to work as a steam locomotive engineer for the Danville and Southern Railroad in Cincinnati, Ohio.
On June 3, 1884, Woods registered his first patent (U.S. 299,894) for a steam boiler furnace. Six months later on December 2, 1884 he registered his second patent (U.S. 308,876) for a telephone transmitter followed just four months after that (April 7, 1885) with a patent (U.S. 315,368) for an apparatus for transmission of messages by electricity. In 1884 Woods and his brother, Lyates, established the Woods Electric Company in Cincinnati to produce and market his inventions. Over the next five years (1890) Woods patented 14 more of his inventions.
On August 4, 1890 when he moved to New York City, Woods was already an accomplished inventor who had invented several devices that dramatically improved railway communication. He believed that New York’s horse drawn streetcars and the coal powered steam engines running on New York’s railroads and elevated transit lines could be replaced with clean, safe, electric traction.
On Saturday February 13, 1892 Woods’ Multiple Distributing Station System was tested by the American Engineering Company and demonstrated to the public at Coney Island, Brooklyn. Information from the Brooklyn Historic Railway Association about the Coney Island demonstration states: The demonstration amazed the crowd and made a very favorable impression with the electrical experts and surface railway magnates of that period. This system allowed for the wireless transmission of electric power, utilizing principles of electro magnetic induction instead of overhead wires, a 3rd rail or any physical contact point.
Woods could not benefit from this amazing invention because James S. Zerbe of the American Engineering Company went to extraordinary lengths, including cheating and lying, in an attempt to steal Woods’ patented invention. Woods did not fade quietly into the night. Fighting back in the media and the courts, he was even jailed for a few days (March 1892) during the heated battle to protect his invention against the crooks at the American Engineering Company.
Woods’ life-long battle with the American Engineering Company and others who tried to steal his inventions is documented in Fouché’s book.
Twice Woods successfully defended his right to his inventions against the White inventor Thomas Edison. The Edison Company then offered Woods a job, offered to buy his company and even offered him a partnership. Woods declined each offer, preferring to remain independent. His independence cost him dearly since he did not make enough money to manufacture his inventions and was constantly fighting attempts to steal his inventions.
He was forced to sell some of his inventions to large White owned companies like the American Bell Telephone Company, General Electric and the Westinghouse Air Brake Company. As an independent African-American inventor, Woods spent the last years of his life in virtual poverty as he battled in court for control of his inventions.
In Black Inventors in the Age of Segregation: Granville T. Woods, Lewis H. Latimer, & Shelby, J. Davidson Fouché writes of Woods: He was an exception among black inventors of this period in that inventing was his career. Woods’s life, however, was not that of a triumphant and heroic inventor. He spent the majority of his adult life marginalized as an inventor, desperately struggling to secure funding and gain a respectable reputation for his work. For Woods patents did not produce economic rewards; they only represented unfulfilled dreams. Woods life – at times closer to a nightmare than the American dream – clearly illustrates the harsh realities of being a black inventor at the end of the nineteenth century.
After suffering a cerebral hemorrhage Woods transitioned on January 30, 1910 and was buried at Saint Michael’s Cemetery, East Elmhurst, in the borough of Queens, New York. In 1969, Elementary Public School No. 335 in Brooklyn, New York (Granville T. Woods Public School 335) was dedicated in his honour.
On October 11, 1974 Governor John J. Gilligan of Ohio issued a proclamation recognizing Woods’ achievements in science and as an inventor.