Born in Columbus, Ohio, Granville T. Woods received little schooling as a young man and, in his early teens, took up a variety of jobs, including 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.
Woods eventually 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.
The patent for his device, which combined the telephone and telegraph, was bought by Alexander Graham Bell, and the payment freed Woods to devote himself to his own research. One of his most important inventions was the "troller," a grooved metal wheel that allowed streetcars to collect electric power from overhead wires.
Another one of Woods's inventions was the multiplex telegraph, also known as the "induction telegraph," or block system, in 1887. The device allowed men to communicate by voice over telegraph wires, ultimately helping to speed up important communications and, subsequently, preventing crucial errors such as train accidents. Woods defeated Thomas Edison's lawsuit that challenged his patent and turned down Edison's offer to make him a partner. Thereafter, Woods was often known as "Black Edison."
Woods's next most important invention was the power pick-up device in 1901, which is the basis of the so-called "third rail" currently used by electric-powered transit systems. From 1902 to 1905, he received patents for an improved air-brake system.
By the time of his death, on January 30, 1910, in New York City, Granville T. Woods had invented 15 appliances for electric railways, received nearly 60 patents, many of which were assigned to the major manufacturers of electrical equipment that are a part of today's daily life.
"Granville T. Woods, the greatest colored inventor in the history of the race, and equal, if not superior, to any inventor in the country, is destined to revolutionize the mode of street car transit. The results of his experiments are no longer a question of doubt. He has excelled in every possible way in all his inventions. He is master of the situation, and his name will be handed down to coming generations as one of the greatest inventors of his time. He has not only elevated himself to the highest position among inventors, but he has shown beyond doubt the possibility of a colored man inventing as well as one of any other race." - The Catholic Tribune, January 14, 1886
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