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Elijah McCoy, Lewis Latimer and Granville Woods: African-American Inventors of the 19th Century – Part 2 – The Inventions – Granville T. Woods

The rock star of African-American inventors of the 19th century, Woods enjoy great fame during his lifetime. “The most noted Negro inventor of the country today is Granville T. Woods, of New York, having patented more than forty devices, relating to the control of electricity. One was sold to Bell Telephone for $10,000.”7

After working in the railroad industry for several years Woods moved to Cincinnati, Ohio and set up a firm for production of telephones and other electrical equipment. While there, at the age of 31, he patented a means of telegraphy for trains to communicate with station houses using wires on the roofs of the train cars. He based his idea on trolley car wires, attaching to another wire suspended above the train track. The Synchronous Multiplex Railway Telegraph was a major breakthrough in telegraphy which, because it allowed communications between individual trains and stations, greatly reduced railway accidents by allowing dispatchers to communicate the locations of trains to other trains. As Woods put it in his patent application:

“My invention relates to induction-telegraphy, having reference to its use between moving vehicles, particularly on railways; and its object is to obtain increased effects from a given dynamic force with a single permanent conductor, thereby economizing in respect to the plant employed.”8

This was the first time train operators had been able to give and receive information about their location that could be immediately passed on to other moving trains. The Washington Bee lauded him for his discoveries:

“Granville T Woods is the smartest colored man in Ohio. He is an inventor who will someday make Edison look to his laurels. Never a day passes but that he invents something new, and his only pleasure is to experiment in electricity and applied mechanics.

“…the most notable of Mr. Woods’ inventions is a plan for telegraphing from one moving train to another. When a railroad engineer he thought out this device. Afterwards the same thing was discovered by Riley Smith and Edison perfected it, but Woods was the first in the field and he has successfully established his claim in the courts.”9

Woods was fascinated by what electricity could do when harnessed properly, and his advances in in-motion telegraphy saved countless lives. During the rest of his career as an inventor, applied for more than 60 patents, among them a steam boiler furnace, an automatic air brake, a tunnel construction for electric railway and an electromechanical brake.

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