The eccentric engineer: The forgotten great American inventor
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‘Credit where credit’s due’ is not a phrase that rang true for Granville T Woods. The man who would go on to be known as the ‘Black Edison’ didn’t have the easiest start in life for an engineer.
In 1856, just before the US Civil War, Granville T Woods, known in his later life as the ‘Black Edison’, was born to a part Native American mother and African American father. At age 10, poverty meant he was forced to leave school and take a machine shop apprenticeship.
Here, however, is where Woods discovered his true calling, engineering. How he studied this novel subject is unclear, but he must have learned on the job and may have gone to night school. At 16, he began a series of jobs on the railway and in an iron works while studying electrical engineering in college. Six years later he was working on the British steamer ‘Ironsides’, where he was rapidly promoted to chief engineer.
Woods had more sophisticated plans. In 1880, he moved back to his native Ohio and set up as an inventor and electrical engineer. He was particularly interested in electrical communication and in 1884, formed the Woods Railway Telegraph Company to exploit his new idea of ‘telegraphony’. This allowed telegraph stations to send morse code and voice messages simultaneously along single wire systems.
Of course, inventing is one thing, but getting that invention made and reaping the rewards for it, is quite another. As a black inventor, Woods was particularly vulnerable to fraudsters, thieves and being ignored. To overcome the ‘stigma’ of being black in post-Civil War America, he claimed he was of Aboriginal Australian descent, but this did little to get access to financing.
If American financiers didn’t like his face, they did love his ideas, and Woods managed to stay in business by selling his patents. Telegraphony was sold to the American Bell Telephone Company, giving him enough capital to work on his next invention – the ‘Synchronous Multiplex Railway Telegraph’, which allowed communication between trains and stations using induction. This proved a revolution, as the exact location of trains could be ascertained, putting a stop to collisions. However, during development, Woods caught smallpox and the idea was stolen by Lucius Phelps, who patented it in 1884. It was 1887 before a recovered Woods managed to successfully challenge the patent.
By now Woods had nearly 50 patents, covering everything from egg incubators to improvements in telegraphy, telephony and phonography, which saw him referred to as ‘The Greatest Electrician in the World’ by the American Catholic Tribune. Perhaps it was this that brought him to the attention of Thomas Edison, who promptly claimed the system was his idea. Despite Edison’s formidable legal team, Woods successfully defended his patent. A bruised Edison did what he normally did in these situations and offered Woods a job. Woods refused.
Woods formed the Woods Electrical Company, which moved to New York in 1892. Following the blizzard of 1888, the Mayor of New York had decreed that all electrical wires had to be buried. This was a particular problem for electrical train systems, but Woods adapted a third rail system to work on the Underground. His patent called for wire brushes under the train to contact live terminals on a third electrical contactor rail. This simple system meant that once a train car passed over the contact, the wires were no longer live, reducing the risk from ground level wiring. The American Engineering Company of New York City, which Woods agreed could develop the system, attempted to cut him out of the deal.
When Woods withheld a vital part of the plans, the manager of the company, James S. Zerbe, stole them and went ahead without him. A furious Woods put an advertisement in the papers asking people not to patronise the company – and Zerbe sued. Woods was acquitted, but not before Zerbe had patented the system in Europe. Wary of further excursions into business, Woods sold his patent to General Electric.
Woods died, aged only 53, in New York on 30 January 1910. His body was thrown in a coffin with two infants and another adult and buried in an unmarked grave. It was 1975 before he was given a gravestone, paid for by Western Electric, and 2006 before he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
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