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Black Thought

"Whatever we believe about ourselves and our ability comes true." -Susan L. Taylor

Black Thought

Granville T. Woods

During our Black As Eastcoast summer tour we visited the New York City Transit Museum during our NYC stop, I just wanted to see the old railcars that are on display. The visit to the museum provided an in-depth peak into the history of New York’s subway system that I didn’t anticipate, but gladly welcomed. One of the smaller displays caught my attention and for good reason…..

Granville T. Woods was born in Columbus, Ohio in 1856. Due to his families financial circumstances he had to leave school at 10 years old to work and contribute to the house. Going into an apprenticeship in a machine shop he learned the trades of machinist and blacksmithing that would prove to be valuable skills for the rest of his life.

After moving to Missouri and becoming a firefighter he went on to become an engineer. In December 1874, he moved to Springfield, Illinois where he studied mechanical and electrical engineering in college from 1876-1878. After establishing himself as an electrical engineer and inventor in Cincinnati, Ohio, he started his own company, the Woods Electric Co. after he couldn’t advance within the railroad and steamship companies because of his Black skin.

During this time he received the patient for a device he called Telegraphony which would allow a telegraph station to send voice and telegraph messages over a single wire. He sold the rights to this device to the American Bell Telephone Company. Another invention of his, the Synchronous Multiplex Railway Telegraph, was a device that sent messages between train stations and moving trains. Thomas Edison later filed a claim to the ownership of this patent stating that he had first created a similar telegraph and that he was entitled to the patent for the device. Granville was twice successful in defending himself against Thomas Edison’s erroneous claims, proving that there were no other devices upon which he could have depended or relied upon to make his device. After Thomas Edison's second defeat, he decided to offer Granville a position with the Edison Company, but Granville declined.

Over the next 30 years he would go on to patent over 60 devices that impacted telegraphs, telephones, and electric trains.

Two of his most noted inventions were patented in 1888, an overhead electric conducting system that allowed street cars to use electricity efficiently and safely from overhead wires and a third rail system for conducting electrical power to railway cars, creating a method of supplying electricity to a train without any exposed wires or secondary batteries. Approximately every 12 feet, electricity would be passed to the train as it passed over an iron block. making subway transit possible in New York City.

Often referred to as the ‘Black Edison’, Granville Woods often had difficulties in enjoying his success as other inventors made claims to his devices. He was described as an articulate and well-spoken man, and noted for being well dressed, proffering to dress in all black at all times. He would refer to himself as an immigrant from Australia, in the belief that he would be given more respect if people thought he was from a foreign country, as opposed to being an African American.

He sold many of his patents to such companies as Westinghouse, General Electric and American Engineering.

Granville T. Woods died in 1910. His grave remained unmarked until 1975, when historian M.A. Harris convinced several of the corporations that used Woods's inventions to donate towards a headstone.

….So like I said in the beginning of this article, the display on him was minor and i almost missed it in the museum. A direct contributor to the success and functionality of the subway system, this man deserves more acknowledgement.

Letter from Granville Woods to W.E.B. DuBois discussing some of his inventions.

Kandice Hill