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Great Engineers & Scientists

In 1676, Sir Isaac Newton wrote "If I have seen further it is by standing on ye shoulders of Giants." In this blog, we take Newton's words to heart, and recognize the many great engineers and scientists upon whose shoulders we stand.

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Granville T. Woods: The Black Edison

Posted February 19, 2010 9:30 AM by Steve Melito

Granville T. Woods was an African-American inventor and engineer known as "The Black Edison". His inventions included overhead electrical lines for railways, a steam boiler furnace, the synchronous multiplex railway telegraph, and a communications technology called "telegraphony".

Early Life

Granville T. Woods was born in Columbus, Ohio on April 23, 1856. He attended school until age 10, when he went to work for his father as an apprentice in a railroad machine shop. While learning the skills of a machinist and blacksmith, young Granville become so interested in the electricity that powered railroad machinery that he paid his co-workers for lessons about basic electrical concepts. Later, Woods attended engineering school for two years, probably in the eastern United States.

Steam Engines and Jim Crow

In 1872, Granville T. Woods took a job as a fireman on Missouri's Danville and Southern (D & S) Railroad. He was later promoted to railway engineer. In the age of Jim Crow, however, blacks were banned from many libraries as local laws ensured de jure racial discrimination. Unable to borrow books himself, Woods continued to experiment with electricity in his spare time. In 1874, he left Missouri for neighboring Illinois, where he continued his hands-on education by finding work in a steel rolling mill.

Ironsides to Early Inventions

In 1876, Granville T. Woods left Jim Crow for Ironsides, a British steamer. Within two years, he was named Chief Engineer. Histories of Granville T. Woods may present confusing timelines, but the most important phase of the inventor's life is clear.

In 1884, Granville T. Woods and his brother Lyates established the Woods Railway Telegraph Company, which designed and manufactured telephone, telegraph, electrical and railroad equipment. The company's work with overhead electric conducting lines helped power the development of railways systems in several American cities. Woods also filed a patent for an improved steam-boiler furnace for locomotives

Telephony, Telegraphy and Telegraphony

In 1885, Granville T. Woods patented a device that incorporated elements of both a telephone and a telegraph. The "telegraphony" was designed to allow a telegraph station to transmit both voice and telegraph messages over a single wire. After selling his rights to this device to the American Bell Telephone Company, Woods patented the synchronous multiplex railway telegraph, which allowed communications between a station and a moving train as well as between moving trains.

Thomas Edison filed a claim to ownership of this latter patent, but "The Black Edison" prevailed. After defeating "The Wizard of Menlo Park" in several court battles, Granville T. Woods rebuffed Edison's overtures for a business partnership. As Woods once said, "I believe I can do anything if I try."



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Re: Granville T. Woods: The Black Edison

02/22/2010 4:23 AM

Very interesting, he maust ahve had a tough time, it's great that he managed despite the scales being weighed so heavilly in favour of Edison, Bell and the like.
I should have like to meet him, I'll bet he would have had some great stories.

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Anonymous Poster
In reply to #1

Re: Granville T. Woods: The Black Edison

08/19/2010 11:41 AM

Granville Woods was not a natural born American nor was he African-American. He was born in Melbourne Australia to Aboriginal parents (most likely Pinajarbo Tribe). He moved to Ohio USA and had trouble getting past elementary school at 10 years old due to local racism.

He went to work for his dad and paid mechanics and engineers to teach him the ropes of electricity, motors, etc. He was basically an autodidact but did get formal education later. I'm reading his patent #373,915 (11/29/1887) and can't believe that I'm reading something that's 120 years old! This man was a genius or a Black Edison. Edison realized he couldn't beat him in patent court so he had Woods join him. He essentially made a form of wireless communications between railroad engineers to dispatchers before radio was even invented! Sold it to GE. Bad move. I'm still trying to find his Synchronous Multiplex Railway Telegraph patent to see how the induction coils where laid on the track and how long they were.

Reading his stuff is like reading something from the 20th century. I still don't know if anyone knows about an induction based telephone comm system EVER. I wonder if his kids today are as smart as he was. Still trying to find out what he died from in NYC at a mere 53 years old. Send me a private message.

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Anonymous Poster
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Re: Granville T. Woods: The Black Edison

08/19/2010 11:44 AM

If Hollywood (Spike Lee?) ever does a movie about him I think Ernie Hudson (from Ghostbusters?) looks just like Granville. Somebody please tell Spike to forget about the UCONN Time Machine black doctor in Connecticut and focus on a real Black science hero.

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