By Len "Muddy" Mardeusz
Granville T. Woods: The Black Edison
Everyone has heard of Thomas Edison. Granville T. Woods, an African-American was a key inventor who made key contributions to the development of the telephone, street cars, and more. He became known as “The Black Edison”. Unfortunately, very few people have ever heard of him.
Granville Woods was born in Columbus, Ohio on April 23, 1856 to free African-American parents. In his early teens he took a job as a railroad engineer in a rail road machine shop. At the age of 20, in 1876 Granville Woods moved to New York. During the next 2 years he took courses in engineering and electricity. Granville realized they would’ve be key to the future.
Granville Woods began to form ideas for what would later be his most important invention: the inductor Telegraph. In 1880 he moved to Cincinnati, where he set up his own company to develop, manufacture and sell electrical apparatus. In 1889, Granville filed his first patent for an improved steam boiler furnace. One of his most important inventions was the “troller”, a grooved metal wheel that allowed street cars, later known as trolleys, to collect electric power from over head wires. His second invention was an improved telephone transmitter.The patent for his device which combined the telephone with the telegraph was purchased by Alexander Graham Bell. The payment helped his struggling business and freed Granville to devote time to his research.
Yet as far back as 1885 Woods filed his first patent application on the induction telegraph system that should have made him famous. However, in 1886 Lucius Phelps claimed he filed before Granville. It took a long, long year in court. In 1887, Woods was able to prove he was the first to conceive of this induction telegraph system. Granville Woods returned to New York in August of 1890. There he met James Zerbe,manager of American Patent Agency. It turned out to be an ill-fated meeting. Zerbe was simply a thief, he managed to decieve, duplicate, and outright steal Garville’s intellectual properties for his financial benefit. As Woods would eventually learn dealing with Zerbe and his friends was like dealing with “the devil”.
When Granville Woods learned how unscrupulous Zerbe was, he started to secretly file patent on his latest electric railway system in October 1891, with his drawings. They were deemed unacceptable by the patent office. Woods quickly made appropriate corrections and resent them to his patent attorneys. Zerbe retaliated by suing Granville Woods for libel. Zerbe was to find out what you ask for in filing a libel suit is not always the outcome you expect. The Judge after hearing all of the testimony expressed his concerns about Zerbe’s comments and past history. The libel suit against Granville Woods was dismissed. Zerbe in fact now faced disbarment and arrested for improper use of client
The parallels to and differences from Thomas Edison. Both inventors went to court twice over what was a disputes on invention rights. In both instances Granville won. There were rumors that Edison asked Granville Woods to work for him, but Woods turned down the offer. Still the parallels between the two inventors is interesting. Edison is better known than Granville Woods, but both came from Ohio, each came from very humble and modest family backgrounds. They each were primarily self-taught and very entrepreneurial. Both Edison and Woods focused on electrical technologies. The key differences between Woods and Edison, Granville was black, a minority and in the 19th century a segregated society made it difficult to gain financing to support his inventive activities. This caused problems and difficulties as Granville Woods had to avoid dealing with nefarious partners and financiers.
Granville Woods, who stood well over six and a half feet tall. He married a lady named Lucille. Without a doubt he was a man among men. Granville Woods was an inventive genius equal to Edison and Alexander Bell. Granville Woods registered over 65 patents for electrical, mechanical and communication devices. We take for granted for those devices with no knowledge as to the inventor, Granville Woods. Basically, American historians ignore the achievements of men and women of color. Granville Woods, unknown, yet he sold his inventions to General Electric and Westinghouse. Granville T. Woods, an inventive genius, an African-American!