The work that Woods conducted with electricity in the late nineteenth century is what made him famous. Some think he created the third rail, or at the very least significantly enhanced it, allowing subways to operate. He also devised technologies for communication and railroad safety.
When Woods was active, it was at the dawn of the electrical age, and he was surrounded by luminaries like as Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, and George Westinghouse. As a consequence, he made headlines in newspapers throughout the country and earned the moniker “Black Edison.”
Woods was an intelligent and beautiful public speaker who frequently appeared in all black. He would tell people he was born in Australia, which many biographers believe he made up to get respect and escape enslavement in the United States. He always claimed to have been born in Australia.
“People would step back in shock, asking, ‘Who is this guy?'” recalled David L. Head, a former New York City bus driver who spent years studying Granville T. Woods’ biography before writing the book “Granville T. Woods: African American Communication and Transportation Pioneer.” The book was written by Head (2013).
He said that at the time, the great majority of black people were illiterate, unable to read or write, much alone explain something as complicated and possibly fatal as electricity.
However, the road to celebrity was not without cost. Woods had spent all of his money on legal battles to get credit for his innovations, and he was on the point of famine.
In his book “Black Inventors in the Age of Segregation: Granville T. Woods, Lewis H. Latimer, and Shelby J. Davidson,” Rayvon Fouché wrote that the lives of Granville T. Woods, Lewis H. Latimer, and Shelby J. Davidson “clearly illustrates the harsh realities of being a black inventor at the end of the nineteenth century.” “Woods’ existence, at times resembling a nightmare more than the American dream” (2003).
In the 1880s, Woods achieved a significant breakthrough with the induction telegraph, which served as a means of communication for railway workers. Because conductors were unable to communicate with rail stations, it was almost inevitable that two trains would crash if they arrived at the same time. Woods’ invention suspended a coil from the locomotive’s underbelly, creating a magnetic field all around the train as it moved down the rails. This allowed messages to be delivered without interruption.
He took sick with smallpox and was bedridden for months before submitting a patent application. When it came to this notion at the time, another inventor named Lucius Phelps had beaten him to the punch. Woods was taken aback when he read in Scientific American that Phelps had developed a version of the communications system that he had been working on for many years. He completed his design quickly, applied for a patent, and began research to determine who was the pioneer in the creation of the technology.
Woods was able to demonstrate his invention by submitting notes, drawings, and a working model, and he was granted a patent in 1887.
According to Fouché’s book, Woods was involved in patent interference conflicts for more than a dozen of the 45 patents he obtained in the United States. He was frequently obliged to supplement his income from his occupation as an inventor with low-paying side jobs. He once parted ways with his landlady by promising her a stake of his business in exchange for lodging and board.
“Woods’ day-to-day actions may best be classified as survival and even hustling,” stated Fouché. “Woods’ daily actions are best defined as survival, if not hustling.”
Woods and his wife married in 1890, but the following year, his wife filed for divorce.
Head was the researcher’s name, and he said that “he did not have any money to donate.” “He had a horrible temper and would abuse his wife verbally and physically.” She yearned for his time and attention. “He was a jerk who verbally and physically abused his wife.” That didn’t go over well with her.
His most ardent opponent was James S. Zerbe, his business partner at the American Engineering Company, which he and Zerbe founded in 1891. Zerbe was also the first employee of his firm. Woods accused Zerbe of stealing his designs and pointed the blame at him.
Woods wanted to improve the way electric trains were powered, and he was particularly interested in the concept of the “third rail,” which gives electricity to trains from below rather than from wires dangling above.
A form of this existed, according to Head, but it was only relevant to the above-ground component of the light rail system. According to him, no one had discovered a way to make it powerful enough to carry trains below until Woods.
Woods and Zerbe would eventually take their dispute over who owned the idea to court. Despite winning first place, Zerbe had already been given a patent in Europe for the design. It was worth a million dollars.
Woods kept working in the realm of innovation, ultimately selling several of his inventions to General Electric and Westinghouse. One of his later Westinghouse developments was an automatic air brake. It was an early form of a so-called dead man’s switch, which slows or stops a train to avoid a collision if the conductor loses control. By 1896, Woods had saved enough money to purchase a farm in Rockland County, New York.
As a consequence of Head’s lobbying for Woods’ body of work, New York City issued four million commemorative MetroCards in 2004, and the Brooklyn Public Library staged an exhibition dedicated to his career.
“His improvements made it viable for there to be subways in New York City,” says Head.
Granville Taylor Woods was born in Ohio on April 23, 1856, according to the archives. His parents both worked hard, his father as a sawyer and his mother as a washerwoman.
The sound of coal-powered trains thundering over the plains attracted him as a child. To help support his family, he started working in a railway shop in his early adolescence, where he learned about metallurgy and mechanical engineering. He started his railroad career as a coal shoveler, responsible for pouring coal into the furnaces of many train engines.
He died on January 30, 1910, at the age of 53, from a cerebral hemorrhage caused by smallpox. His burial in St. Michael’s Cemetery in East Elmhurst, New York, was a total disaster.
In 1975, The New York Times quoted a historian as saying, “He was put in a coffin alongside two infants and an adult.” In 1975, the essay was published.
The next year, a class field trip to the cemetery was conducted, and during the trip, a ten-year-old girl performed a homage to the inventor as laborers hoisted a tombstone into place.
“Grave 144, Range 3, Plot 5 finally received a tombstone,” according to the report.
The Granville T. Woods School, the students’ educational institution, is located in Brooklyn.