The Black Edison

Granville Woods
Granville Woods

The Black Edison. Such was the nickname bestowed upon Granville T. Woods, an African-American inventor who held more than 50 patents. Born in Columbus in 1856, he attended school only to age 10, leaving due to family poverty and the necessity of work.

In this instance, the work also served as the “Mother of Invention,” since it taught Woods how to be a machinist and a blacksmith. Woods obtained a job as a railroad fireman and later as a railroad engineer. For several years, he studied mechanical and electrical engineering, eventually landing a job as chief engineer on a British steamship. Woods then obtained a position as an engineer on the Dayton and Southwestern Railroad. In 1880 he left the railroad and moved to Cincinnati, where he started business as an electrical engineer and inventor along with his brother, who was also an inventor.

In 1885, Woods received a patent for his invention of the multiplex telegraph, which allowed a telegraph station to send voice and telegraph messages over a single wire. He sold the patent rights to American Bell Telephone Co. In 1887, he patented the Synchronous Multiplex Railway Telegraph, which allowed communications between train stations and moving trains.

It is suspected that racial bias contributed to difficulties with some of his patents. Other inventors, including Thomas Edison, tried to claim that they should have the rights to patents that Woods held. He successfully defended against these claims, and ironically, he was even offered a job to work with Thomas Edison, which Woods turned down.

Woods also held patents for a steam boiler furnace, an automatic brake system and an egg incubator. He sometimes obtained patents that were improvements on other inventions such as the telephone, telegraph, phonograph and electrical circuits. He sold the rights to many of his patents to companies such as Westinghouse, General Electric and American Engineering.

Woods died in 1910 in New York City. He was buried in an unmarked grave for 65 years. A historian helped raise funds and persuaded several corporations that used Woods’s inventions to donate money for a headstone, which was finally erected in 1975. Woods’s accomplishments were even more amazing considering that his formal education ceased at age 10 and that he was essentially self-educated in very complicated technical fields such as mechanical and electrical engineering.

Perhaps if Woods had been born in a different generation where opportunity was at least somewhat more equal, his inventions would have been even more numerous. Luckily he didn’t dwell on his accomplishments or on the lack of opportunity. Instead, he went to work and just invented.

Wayne Stephens, a member of Holmes-Wayne EC, lives in Wooster.