Faces of Black History – Granville Woods

Granville T. Woods (1856-1910) is known to many as “The Black Edison,” because both were great inventors who came from disadvantaged childhoods. But unlike Edison, Woods was considered fortunate to receive an education to help him on the road to his inventions. In the late nineteenth century few African-American children ever saw the inside of a classroom.

Woods further educated himself by working in railroad machine shops and steel mills, and by reading about electricity. He often had friends check out library books for him, since African-Americans were excluded from many libraries at the time. Woods managed to scrape together enough knowledge of electrical engineering to invent “telegraphony,” a process that was later purchased by Alexander Graham Bell’s company.

Allowing operators to send and receive messages more quickly than before, telegraphony combined features of both the telephone and telegraph. The Bell Company’s purchase of this invention enabled Woods to become a full-time inventor.

Among his later inventions was the multiplex telegraph. A success in the powerful railroad industry of the late nineteenth

century, the device not only helped dispatchers locate trains, but also allowed moving trains to communicate by telegraph. This invention was so useful that Woods found himself fighting patent suits filed by none other than Thomas Edison. Woods eventually won, but Edison continued to pursue the telegraph by offering Woods a lucrative partnership in one of Edison’s businesses. Woods refused, preferring to be independent.

Granville Woods is an excellent role model to the disadvantaged youth of today. He chose to pick up a book and educate himself, if only some of the youth today would do the same.

Copyright © Massachusetts Institute of Technology MIT School of Engineering

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