Friday, February 14, 1997
Inventor Woods rivaled Edison

Tristate history is filled with African-American achievement, but much of it is not known by the public. Today, in recognition of Black History Month, The Enquirer offers the second of a four-part, weekly series that highlights the lives and contributions of some significant local African-Americans. Today we profile inventor Granville T. Woods.

Next week: Furniture manufacturer Henry Boyd.

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Granville T. Woods
| ZOOM |
Cincinnatian Granville T. Woods, known as the "black Edison" for his electro-magnetic creations, actually went to court twice to protect his inventions from Thomas Edison.

Defeated both times, Edison, inventor of the electric incandescent light, then tried offering Mr. Woods a job with his electric company. Mr. Woods declined, choosing instead to open his own business at 6 W. Third St., but he later sold several of his inventions to Westinghouse Air Brake, Bell Telephone and General Electric.

Estimates of the number of Mr. Woods' patented inventions ranges from 50 to 200, but this much is clear: His work helped to spur the Industrial Revolution.

His most significant invention was the railway telegraph system.

Patented on Aug. 11, 1888, this device led to major improvements in railway communications. By using a single permanent electrical conductor, a stronger, coded electrical signal could be sent or received between railway operators.

The communications system greatly improved safety, reducing accidents by informing train conductors of movements in front or behind them, and decreased costs for railway companies.

Mr. Woods moved to Cincinnati in 1881, at age 25. He was born in Columbus and attended school until age 10.

Largely self-taught, he mastered the machinist and blacksmith trades and went to work as a railroad fireman and engineer. He took college courses in electrical and mechanical engineering to fine-tune his interest in electricity and landed a job as an engineer on the British steamer Ironsides.

Upon his arrival in Cincinnati, he began manufacturing telephone, telegraph and electrical equipment. His first patent, for an improved steam-boiler furnace, was issued in 1884.

His other major inventions, also created at Woods Electric Co., were:

  • ''Apparatus for Transmission of Messages by Electricity,'' patented April 7, 1885.

    The invention allowed the transmission of signal and voice messages over the same line without changing instruments. Instruments that used to send Morse Code only could also send voice messages with minor modification by employing this device.

    This invention allowed people who couldn't read or write to send and receive messages.

  • ''Relay Instrument,'' patented June 7, 1887.

    The device was similar to the modern telephone and used a combination of electricity and magnets. It responded to a small current or voltage change by activating switches or other parts of an electric circuit. The result was improved sensitivity of inductive telegraphy.

  • ''Telephone System and Apparatus,'' patented Oct. 11, 1887.

    This invention improved the transmission of voice and sound over the telephone, and reduced the amount of interference from neighboring lines.

His other inventions include an early model of the egg incubator, dimmer controls for light switches, the electric battery, automatic air brakes and the ''third rail'' used in subway systems.

Mr. Woods died in New York in 1910.

Previous story