Woods, Granville T.

Woods, Granville T.

(1856–1910) inventor; born in Ohio. Born to free African-Americans, he received only sketchy schooling, quitting in his early teens to start a variety of jobs—in a railroad machine shop, as a railroad engineer, in a steel mill, as an engineer on a British ship, and then back on the railroad. But somewhere along the way—evidently in New York City between 1876–78—he had taken some courses in electricity, which he evidently realized held the key to the future, and in 1881 he settled in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he eventually was able to set up his own company to develop, manufacture, and sell electrical apparatus. His first invention was for an improved steam boiler furnace, but thereafter his patents were mainly for electrical devices, such as his second invention, an improved telephone transmitter. The patent for his device combining the telephone and telegraph was bought by Alexander Graham Bell and the payment freed Woods to devote himself to his own researches. One of his most important inventions was the "troller," or grooved metal wheel, that allowed street cars (soon known as "trolleys") to collect electric power from overhead wires. His most important invention (1887) was the multiplex telegraph (also known as the induction telegraph, or block system); he defeated Thomas Edison's legal suit that challenged his patent, then turned down Edison's offer to make him a partner. Thereafter Woods was often known as "the black Edison." After receiving the patent for the multiplex telegraph, he reorganized his Cincinnati company as the Woods Electric Co., but in 1890 he moved his own research operations to New York City, where he was joined by a brother, Lyates Woods, who also had several inventions of his own. Granville's next most important invention (1901) was the power pick-up device that is the basis of the so-called "third rail" used by electric-powered transit systems. Between 1902–05 he received patents for an improved air-brake system. By the time of his death he had some 60 patents, many of them assigned to the major manufacturers of electrical equipment that is a part of everyone's daily life.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.