Granville Woods Biography

Granville Woods, an American inventor and engineer, was a contemporary to renowned figures such as Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, and George Westinghouse. Despite facing racial discrimination, Woods became the first inventor of African ancestry to excel in the fields of electrical and mechanical engineering after the Civil War. Referred to as the ‘Black Edison’ by a newspaper, Woods even defeated Edison in court over a patent right. Rejecting Edison’s offer of partnership, Woods valued his freedom of thought. With over 60 patents, his contributions primarily focused on communications and applications in the railway industry. Although he faced numerous legal battles to protect his inventions, Woods is now recognized as an unsung hero of the 19th century, whose innovations revolutionized modern communication systems and railways.

Quick Facts

  • Also Known As: Granville Tailer Woods, Granville T. Woods
  • Died At Age: 53
  • Family:
    • Spouse/Ex-: Gabrielle
    • Father: Cyrus Woods
    • Mother: Martha J. Brown
    • Siblings: Henrietta Woods, Lyates Woods, Rachel Woods Madison
    • Children: Jake
  • Born Country: United States
  • African Americans
  • Inventors
  • Height: 7’0″ (213 cm), 7’0″ Males
  • Died on: January 30, 1910
  • Place of death: New York, New York, United States
  • Cause of Death: Brain Hemorrhage
  • U.S. State: Ohio, African-American From Ohio
  • Discoveries/Inventions: Telegraphony, Incubator, Third Rail, Multiplex Telegraph

Childhood & Early Life

Granville Taylor Woods was born on April 23, 1856 in Columbus, Ohio into a humble African American household. His father was a sawyer and his mother washed clothes for a living. He had a brother named Lyates. Living in a time of intense racial discrimination, he was forced to leave school early and began working in a machine shop at the age of ten.

From 1872 to 1880, he travelled the country and worked as a fireman in a railyard and rolling mill. He spent time aboard a British steamer as an engineer and returned to Cincinnati to take up the post of a steam locomotive engineer. In that time, he qualified for taking engineering courses at a college in New York City. He worked in the day and attended night classes.


Based on the knowledge he gained about electrical and mechanical applications from his years of work, Granville Woods successfully filed for his first patent on June 3, 1884; an improved version of a steam boiler furnace. That same year, he and his brother registered the Woods Electric Company in Cincinnati to develop new inventions and market them. Thus, began his career as an inventor.

In December 1884, he was granted a patent for his telephone transmitter. Although similar in principle to Graham Bell’s decade-old telephonic device, his apparatus carried a clearer and discernible sound over longer distance. Due to means and money to manufacture the device in numbers, the patent was later reallocated to the American Bell Telephone Company.

In 1885, he patented yet another invention, the ‘telegraphony’, which was a telephone and telegraph rolled into one mechanism. Like the telegraph, it could send long and short pulses, but it could also transmit and receive audio messages by flipping a switch. Seeing its huge demand, he sold the patent to American Bell Telephone Company for an attractive sum.

On November 29, 1887, he filed a patent for his ‘Induction Telegraph’ system. However, it was challenged in the courts by two inventors, Thomas Edison and Lucius Phelps, in separate legal suits on the premise that they developed a similar system before him. In both cases, Woods emerged victorious.

In 1889, he patented another invention called the re-electric railway supply system. The mechanism used a ‘troller’ or grooved wheel to efficiently transfer electric current to the car by producing less friction. The troller is the etymological source for the term ‘trolley car’.

In 1891, he moved his research operations from Cincinnati to New York, and along with his brother Lyates and another inventor, James Zerbe, started the American Engineering Co. He accused Zerbe of stealing his electric railway conduit patent, who in turn filed a criminal libel against him in 1892 following a street tussle. His inability to post money for bail meant that he had to do some jail time. The two met again in court over patent ownership, which Woods ultimately won, but by then Zerbe had already patented the million-dollar design in Europe.

In 1900, he successfully filed a patent for an egg incubator that provided a constant temperature for hatching of chicks. By removing the need for the mother hen to provide warmth to the eggs, it decreased the incubation period, in turn profiting the poultry industry.

Major Works

Both his electrical inventions that deal with sound transmissions were ground-breaking in their own ways. While the physical properties of his telephone transmitter still find use in modern landlines, the application possibilities of the telegraphony invention had a much larger audience than the telegraph could ever manage. Prior to his Induction Telegraph system, railway communications due to limitations in existing mechanisms had to contend with truncation in messages sent and received between a station and a train or between two trains, which in many instances led to accidents. His invention brought down the incidence of such accidents drastically.

Awards & Achievements

Granville Woods held more than 60 patents for his inventions dealing with a myriad of real-world applications during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. However, the prevailing discriminatory atmosphere at the time meant that he was often overlooked by award committees due to the color of his skin.

Family & Personal Life

Granville Woods got married in 1890 but only a year later, his wife filed for divorce. Much of what he earned through his inventions went into fighting legal battles against well-off contemporary inventors for patent rights. Additionally, he contracted smallpox in 1881 which kept him bedridden for months. He passed away on January 30, 1910, at the age of 53, from cerebral hemorrhage. He was buried in an unmarked grave in a cemetery in East Elmhurst, New York.


A school in Brooklyn was named after him in the 1970s. The same year, M.A. Harris, a historian raised funds to get a headstone constructed for his grave. The Baltimore City Community College in Maryland has a scholarship program named after him. It is a full scholarship that covers the cost of tuition, other fees, and books for selected students. Thanks to David Head’s book promotion celebrating the inventor’s life and his works, New York City issued metro cards in 2004 commemorating Granville Woods.


Granville Woods dressed sharp, spoke elegantly, and told people he was born in Australia. The latter was a fabrication in the hope of distancing himself from slavery in America and thus get the respect and equal opportunities he deserved.

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