In his lifetime, one of Cincinnati’s finest inventors, Granville T. Woods defeated Thomas Edison at Patent Office with 60 patents.
His reputation was so high that the Cincinnati Commercial Gazette on February 27, 1889 noted: “The lecture room of the Young Men’s Christian Association was filled last night with an audience which listened interestedly to a lecture on electricity and its modern applications by Mr. Granville T. Woods, the well-known colored electrician of this city. Mr. Woods is one of the foremost electricians of the country and his many inventions have shown an amount of skill and dexterity in dealing with the most potent and mysterious of all forces, which places him in the front rank of inventors also.”
Woods moved to Cincinnati around 1880 from his Columbus, Ohio birth place. He began his inventive life at the Dayton and Southwestern Railroad, eventually setting up his own engineering and electrical company on Lodge Street, near Fountain Square. The African-American inventor made key contributions to the development of the telephone, street car and more.
Woods was born on April 23, 1856.
Now a Cincinnati resident, Woods set up his own company to develop, manufacture and sell electrical apparatus, and in 1889, he filed his first patent for an improved steam boiler furnace. His later patents were mainly for electrical devices, including his second invention, an improved telephone transmitter.
Alexander Graham Bell bought the patent for his device which combined the telephone and telegraph. The payment allowed Woods to research more leading to the “troller,” a grooved metal wheel that allowed street cars (later known as “trolleys”) to collect electric power from overhead wires.
For one born to free African-Americans who received little schooling, Granville T. Woods proved to be industrious working as a railroad engineer in a railroad machine shop, as an engineer on a British ship, in a steel mill, and as a railroad worker. From 1876 to 1878, Woods lived in New York City, taking courses in engineering and electricity – a subject that he realized, early on, held the key to the future.
Although remembered for various inventions, it was the multiplex telegraph or inductor telegraph for which he filed for a patent and challenged by two other inventors that he is most remembered for.
Woods explained the invention to a reporter for the Cincinnati Commercial Gazette on October 10, 1886.
“By its means, a train dispatcher can tell at once the location of every train on his roads and engineers can learn exactly where all other trains are, thereby greatly reducing the liability to collisions. Each train will be called by its number just as easily as I am talking to you now. Commercial messages may also be sent. A man need not get off the train to send a message, and between Cincinnati and New York he can hear, if he wishes, from his friends every hour.”
Woods was challenged by Lucien J. Phelps and Thomas A. Edison, however, the U.S. Patent Office dismissed both claims.
While historical narrative has treated Edison kind, he is accused of having a sweatshop full of people he instructed to alter inventions of other inventors. In Woods’ case, he is said to have taken his information and attempted to claim ownership.
Having repelled his challenge to the patent twice, Edison offered Woods a job which he turned down. Woods, however, later sold some of his patents to Edison and other white industrialists since it was difficult marketing African-American inventions to a largely white audience.
“Edison stole ideas, hounded competitors in court and floated hostile rumors about inventions better than his own,” an account holds.
Woods’ other inventions include industrial steam boilers to a new design for electric batteries to an “Amusement Apparatus” that anticipates the slot car racetrack sets that were popular in the 1960s.
Michael C. Christopher noted in his paper “Granville T. Woods: The Plight of a Black Inventor” [Journal of Black Studies, March 1981:
“Like most other black inventors of the era, Woods had to concede that the race of the inventor did affect the market value of the invention. Unfortunately while selling to the larger corporations often reaped small profits for the black inventors, an invention sometimes exceeded all expectations in consumer popularity. In these instances, the company owning the patent received the profits. After selling his invention, the inventor lost all claims to it, receiving no profits and no public recognition for its conception.”
Part of the problem is that businessmen must often travel to meet customers, and Woods knew first-hand the dangers of travel for a black man in the 1880s. Woods left Cincinnati in the early 1890s and moved to New York, where he died on January 30, 1910. Little wonder then that for all his contribution towards the advancement of humanity, Woods was proclaimed “the greatest electrician in the world.”