Granville T. Woods, known as the “Black Edison”

“I believe I can do anything if I just try.”

-Granville T. Woods

Granville T. Woods was known as the “Black Edison.” He was the first Black American mechanical and electrical engineer after the Civil War and invented over 60 patents in the United States.  

Woods dedicated his life to developing a variety of inventions relating to the railroad industry. He invented more than a dozen devices to improve electric railway cars and control the flow of electricity. Although many of his inventions were related to the railroad, he also invented solutions to build an egg incubator, dim theater lighting, and how to create a better boiler for steam engines.

Early Age

Granville Thomas Wood was born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1856. His mother was part Native American, and his father was Black American. He was born a free black because the 1787  Northwest Ordinance prohibited slavery from the territory that included the future of Ohio. While attending school in Columbus and later night school, at the age of 10, Wood had to leave the city due to family poverty.  

Career and Education

In 1872, he became a fireman on the Danville and Southern Railroad in Missouri. Years later, he worked in a rolling mill in Springfield, Illinois. 

Picture of an electric part from a car that woods invented.
WOODS Electric Woods Coupe is Self-Charging Electric Woods Motor Vehicle Co. (Photo credit: Wikemedia)

Although it can not be confirmed, he took mechanical and electrical engineering college classes. In 1878, he became the Chief Engineer of the steamer aboard the Ironsides, a British steamer. He then moved back to Ohio and settled in Cincinnati. From 1876 to 1878, he attended two years of college in electrical and mechanical engineering at some east coast colleges. While in Cincinnati, he started his own company, the Woods Electrical Co., to develop, manufacture, and sell electrical apparatus.


Woods’ first patent was the Steam Boiler Furnace in 1884. Throughout his life would invent fifteen new technologies for electric railways. Woods sold many of his inventions to General Electric, Westinghouse, and Bell Telephone Company. He sold his creations so he could afford to remain self-employed and invent new things.   He was also known for the electric roller coaster called the Figure Eight.

Figure Eight Design-  Lakemont Park.

Here is A list of patents issued to Granville T. Woods

Contributions to Railroads

For railroads, Woods developed the 3rd rail and a system for overhead electric conducting lines, which helped develop the overhead railroad system in cities like Chicago, St. Louis, and New York City. His most notable invention is the induction telegraph system. This invention allowed moving trains to communicate, helping them avoid collisions and dangers on the tracks and locating trains. In 1904, he also created the air brake for trains; however, George Westinghouse patented the air brake almost 40 years before, making Woods’ contribution an improvement to the invention.

Granville T. Woods also invented the “Troller, ” a grooved metal wheel used on trolleys or street cars to collect electric power from overhead wires.

Connection with Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison sued Granville Woods, claiming he was the first inventor of the multiplex telegraph. However, Woods won the lawsuit, so Edison offered Woods a prominent job at Edison Electric Light Company’s engineering department in New York. Granville T. Woods declined the offer.

Woods’ Legacy

The “Black Edison” inventions are a part of several electrical equipment manufacturers that play a substantial role in our daily life.

B&W photo of Granville Woods grave.
Tombstone of Granville T. Woods (Photo credit: Wikimedia)
  • Historian M.A Harris helped raise funds from several corporations that used Woods’ inventions to purchase a headstone for Woods grave, an unmarked grave, until 1975. The monument is at St. Michael’s Cemetery in Elmhurst, Queens
  • In his memory, Baltimore City Community College established the Granville T. Woods scholarship.
  • The New York City Transit Authority organized an exhibition on Woods with bus and train depots in 2004. This included issuing four million MetroCards commemorating the inventor’s achievements in pioneering the third rail.
  • In 2006, Woods was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
  • In Coney Island, the corner of Stillwell and Mermaid Avenues in was named Granville T. Woods Way in 2008. 

Work Cited

African American Culture » Direct Current Musiс.

Granville T. Woods: Inventor and Innovator | US Department ….

Granville Woods – Wikipedia.

Granville T. Woods |

Madison County Ohio History and Genealogy.

BHRA: Granville Woods.

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