The Black Edison: Granville T. Woods

EDITORIAL NOTE: Each year February is Black History Month, but this year we will also mark the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. With this in mind we decided to do a series celebrating the important and innovative contributions of African-Americans. This article about Granville T. Woods, one of the most prolific and influential African-American inventors of all time, kicks off our celebration.  Mr. Guttag also wrote God’s Scientist: George Washington Carver as a part of this series. Later this month we also will take a look at recent innovations coming out of historically black colleges and universities. For more on this topic please visit black inventors on

Granville T. Woods circa 1887.

As we’re about to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it’s appropriate to mention my interest in the biographies of African-Americans, and especially African-American inventors.  For the past three Februarys, I’ve done presentations at our local library in conjunction with Black History Month and Martin Luther King Day.  My presentations in February 2012 and 2013 focused on two significant African-American inventors.  In this first article, I’m going to talk about my fellow Ohio native, Granville T. Woods, often referred to as “The Black Edison.”

I’ve now forgotten how I stumbled across Granville Woods, but once I did, I was amazed by his creative talent, as well as the prolific and diverse number of inventions he came up with.  As a patent attorney now of over 36 years, I also became intrigued about how well Woods understood our patent system, as it existed in the late 19th Century, and tried to take advantage of it.  As I also discovered, Woods wasn’t often successful in his entrepreneurial efforts to exploit what he invented, for reasons not always within his control, including, unfortunately, the fact that he was black.  But he was certainly persistent in those efforts, and was later recognized for his truly creative genius by being inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame (now located in Akron) in 2006.


Wood’s Early Life, Family Background, and Technical Training

Trying to separate myth from fact regarding Woods’ life, especially his early life, family background, and early training isn’t easy.  One big reason is that there aren’t many source materials to consider.  In fact, Professor Fouché (who wrote the book Black Inventors in the Age of Segregation) characterizes Woods’ family history and early years as something of “a mystery.”  But at least what Professor Fouché says about Woods’ early life appears to be based on better source documentation (including U.S. Census Records) than other commentators, including two other books that I’ve read that refer to little, if any, source documentation.  Even so, in some instances, I’ll be weaving in some events from Woods’ life which are described only in these other sources.

In his book on Woods and two other contemporary black inventors (Lewis H. Latimer and Shelby J. Davidson), Professor Fouché says that most of his historical documentation on Woods comes from about 3000 pages of case testimony from 6 patent interferences that Woods was involved in.  For those of you who don’t know what a patent interference is, you are very lucky.  Basically, a patent interference, like the ones Woods was involved in, resolves who will get the patent when two or more inventors file for the same or a similar invention.  (And contrary to what many might believe, interferences will still be with us for awhile, even with their eventual demise due to the AIA.)  As my late patent attorney father, a former interference specialist, would tell you, patent interferences resolve this dispute of who gets the patent by using highly artificial and complex rules.  But you’ll need to have at least this rudimentary understanding of what patent interferences are as we later explore Woods’ professional life.

There are several controversies regarding Woods’ early life and family background.  One is where Woods was born.  Most commentators say that Woods was born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1856.  This thought that Woods was born in Columbus may be related to his first name, Granville, which is a college town near Columbus.  But while Professor Fouché also suggests that Woods was born in 1856, he offers a different and somewhat startling birthplace:  Australia.  This opposing view is based on 1910 U.S. Census records, Woods’ death certificate, biographical sketches written by New York City area newspapers, as well as a statement from an 1895 Cosmopolitan Magazine article.  In fact, Professor Fouché says that “no record of [Woods’] Ohio birth exists.”

Another somewhat controversial issue is what, exactly, is Woods’ racial background.  All would agree that Woods would be considered to be a black in the 19th society in which he lived.  But how much African ancestry Woods had, and whether he should be called an African-American, is another place where Professor Fouché and other commentators part company.  Based primarily on the assumption that Woods was born in Columbus, these other commentators assume that Woods was mostly, if not totally, an African-American.  But based on his “Australian” birth, as well as other statements, including those in the 1895 Cosmopolitan Magazine article, Professor Fouché suggests that Woods ancestry may include Malay Indian, as well as Australian aboriginal, in addition to being of African descent.  Nonetheless, Professor Fouché is correct in saying that Woods would have been viewed by 19th Century American society as being a Negro, and thus a black.

A final controversy about Woods’ early life is how much technical training he received.  By all accounts, Woods received no formal education after the age of 10.  It also appears to be generally accepted that Woods was a driven self-learner, and that he worked in a machine or mechanics shop up through 1872, to about the age of 16.  But after that point, the amount and type of technical training Woods received in his adolescent and early adulthood gets murky because of certain discrepancies and inconsistencies in the time periods that Woods was alleged to have carried out such activities.  These alleged activities include:  starting in 1872, working as a fireman and engineer on a railroad in Missouri; starting in December 1874, working in a rolling mill in Illinois; in early 1876, receiving special training in electrical and mechanical engineering from college; starting in February 1876, being an engineer aboard a British steamer.  Some of these alleged activities undertaken by Woods appear to be based on “folklore,” rather than supportable fact.

But even with these discrepancies and potential inconsistencies, some truths about Woods’ technical training do emerge.  Given that Woods was a self-taught and self-motivated individual, he likely engaged in “some form of engineering or study.”  Given his later inventive activity involving electrical railways, as well as the knowledge he expressed in the corresponding patents, it is virtually certain that Woods worked for one or more railroads, most likely including being a railway engineer.  What is unclear is whether Woods had any formal training as a mechanical engineer, an electrical engineer or both.  But what is very clear is that Woods acquired a “fairly decent command of electrical technology.”  That knowledge is evident from his patents, especially those involving induction telegraphy and electric railways.


Woods Professional Life in Ohio:  1880-1890 

During 1880, Woods made frequent trips from Dayton to Washington Court House in Ohio.  In fact, Woods’ first inventive effort was stimulated by his study of the elevator at the Beckel House located there, and how to improve the signaling mechanism of that elevator.  This study also illustrates his inventive genius in the particular area of electrical technology he was to become noted for:  induction telegraphy.

By December 1880, Woods had begun to pursue development of an elevator signaling system based on electromagnetic inductive communication, and had prepared at least sketches, as well as models of this system.  Unfortunately, Woods never did commercialize this elevator signaling system.  He also apparently never pursued a patent on this elevator signaling system, although the concept of induction telegraphy initially expressed in this system was to later reappear in his many patents on induction telegraphy.

Sometime in 1880, Woods moved to Cincinnati where he was to reside for around 10 years.  It was while Woods was in Cincinnati that his greatest inventive achievement, induction telegraphy, and specifically, railway induction telegraphy, was born.  I’ll describe Woods’ invention of induction telegraphy in greater detail later when we get to the section on his inventions and patents.  But suffice it to say now that Woods’ entrepreneurial efforts truly began to take shape while he was here in the Queen City for about a decade trying to promote his inventions relating to induction telegraphy, especially with respect to railway communications.

Getting financial support for his induction telegraphy system proved to be a significant challenge for Woods.  From 1880 to 1885, Woods struggled to get a steady source of income.  In fact, by 1883, Woods had turned to other inventions to get additional income.  These inventions included a patented steam boiler furnace, as well as two patented telegraphic and telephonic devices.  As noted by Professor Fouché in his book, one of these latter two devices ingenuously permitted toggling between telegraphic and telephonic operations.

In 1884, several sources report that Woods formed the Woods Railway Telegraph Co. with his brother, Lyates.  In fact, one of those sources suggests that the Woods Railway Telegraph Co. became a “million dollar company.”  But I think this suggestion of financial success is just part of the “folklore” surrounding Woods’ inventive and entrepreneurial activity.  Later events do not suggest that Woods was anywhere close to gaining such financial independence while he was in Cincinnati.

In May 1885, Woods filed his first patent application on the induction telegraph system that was to make him famous.  But in March 1886, a patent interference was declared between Woods’ application and one filed earlier in February 1885 by another inventor, Lucius Phelps.  In 1887, Woods ultimately won this interference as he was able to prove he was the first to conceive of this induction telegraph system.  Again, I’ll discuss how this induction telegraph system worked in greater detail later.

Woods activities and his business potential were ultimately noticed by two Cincinnati businessmen, John Gano and Ralph Peters.  John Gano was well known in Cincinnati society, and, more importantly, was well known within its financial community.  In June 1886, with the support of Gano and Peters, Woods founded the Woods Electric Company.  But as would happen later, Woods’ vision for this company didn’t coincide with that of his partners.  For Woods, he wanted the Woods Electric Company to be a “thriving electrical company.”  But Gano’s vision was that it would be, essentially, a patent holding company to market and license Woods’ electrical patents.  This difference in philosophy over how to exploit Wood’s patented electrical inventions, as well as other differences, created serious tension between Woods on one side, and Gano and Peters on the other.  Eventually, in 1890, Woods severed his relationship with the Woods Electric Company, as well as his partners, and went to New York City.


New York City and the American Engineering Company:  1890-1893

After moving to New York City, Woods met James Zerbe, manager of the American Patent Agency, in August 1890.  As Professor Fouché accurately describes, this ill-fated meeting between Woods and Zerbe was to lead to a decade long personal, as well as business struggle filled with deceit, duplicity, and outright theft of Woods’ intellectual property.

The American Patent Agency, a patent soliciting firm, billed itself as promoting inventors and forming companies for inventors.  This description of the American Patent Agency suggests it may have been an early prototype of a more sinister organization still present today that operates on the “Dark Side” of patent practice:  an Invention Promotion Organization, what we commonly refer to in patent practice as the “bad” form of IPO.  If you’ve ever seen one of those “too good to be true” TV ads for an outfit called InventHelp (also known as the Invention Submission Corporation or ISC), you’ve likely been exposed to one of these modern day invention promotion “buccaneers.”

As Woods was to unfortunately learn, dealing with the unscrupulous Zerbe, and his other cohorts, became a “pact with the devil.”  With Zerbe and 4 others, the most prominent of which was a local preacher named Calvin Bowen, Woods created the American Engineering Company to develop and exploit Woods’ electric railway inventions.  One significant problem with Woods’ original electric railway design was that the railway car could move only in one direction.  In September 1890, Woods enlisted the help of Oscar Enholm.  Enholm designed a way for the car in Woods’ electric railway to move in two directions.  Woods then informed Zerbe of Enholm’s “two-way” car design.

About a year later, in August 1891, Zerbe filed a patent application on Woods’s electric railway system.  This application was quickly granted in November 1891 as U.S. Pat. No. 463,020.  But apparently unbeknownst to Woods, Zerbe had deviously included Enholm’s “two-way” car design in this application.  In fact, prior to the August 1891 filing, Woods had tried to delete any reference to Enholm’s “two-way” car design.  But Zerbe pulled the patent version of a “slight of hand.”  He deceived Woods into thinking the amended application would be filed without Enholm’s “two-way” car design.  Instead, Zerbe filed the version of this application which included Enholm’s “two-way” car design.

The “you know what” hit the fan when Enholm discovered this deceit in October 1891.  Enholm then confronted Woods with this discovery.  But Woods was also apparently as “stunned” by Zerbe’s deceit as Enholm was.

Even before the Enholm confrontation, Woods was becoming leery of his partners at the American Engineering Company, especially the unscrupulous Zerbe, and for good reason.  Unknown to Woods, the American Engineering Company (through Zerbe and likely Bowen) was already moving to acquire Wood’s inventions and push him out of the American Engineering Company.  But Woods also pulled a fast one on his duplicitous partners by secretly filing a patent application on his latest electric railway invention in October 1891 with his own crude drawings.  These crude drawings were deemed unacceptable by the Patent Office, and returned to Woods who then had these drawings corrected.  Woods then put these corrected drawings into a mailing tube addressed to his patent attorneys.

When Woods came into the American Engineering Company with this mailing tube containing the corrected drawings, Zerbe and his son noticed it.  When Zerbe opened the mailing tube, Woods’ “secret” patent filing was now out of the bag, or in this case, out of the mailing tube.  Zerbe quickly copied these corrected drawings, and also kept the originals from the mailing tube.  Woods then realized these corrected drawings were missing, and was fairly certain who had taken them.  That led to face-to-face confrontation with Zerbe and his son, where Woods called Zerbe a “thief.”  This verbal confrontation boiled over into a physical altercation between Woods, Zerbe, and his son.  Thus ended Woods’ relationship with the American Engineering Company.

But this tale of deceit, duplicity and theft didn’t end with Woods leaving the American Engineering Company.  In November 1891, and to protect his own interests, Enholm filed his own patent application on his “two-way” car design.  The Patent Office then declared a patent interference between Woods’ August 1891 application, which included Enholm’s “two-way” car design, and Enholm’s later November application.  Ironically, Woods testified in favor of Enholm, and against the American Engineering Company to which his August 1891 application was now assigned.  Woods stated that he didn’t invent certain devices claimed in Wood’s application, most likely with reference to Enholm’s “two-way” car design.  With Wood’s testimony, the interference examiner not surprisingly ruled in favor of Enholm’s November application.

The final piece of the sad American Engineering Company saga began with the discovery by Woods in early 1892 that Zerbe and others were using his “stolen” drawings to construct the Coney Island railway system.  In response, Woods put a “warning” in the February 2, 1892 edition of the Street Railway News that the Coney Island railway system was based on plans “purloined” by Zerbe.  This was followed by a later, more detailed “warning” in the February 27 issue of the Street Railway News, as well as the March 5 edition of The Electrical Age.

In retaliation, Zerbe filed suit against Woods for libel based on these published “warnings,” as well as other published attacks by Woods.  But Zerbe’s situation then went from bad to worse.  At trial, the jury absolved Woods in less than 7 minutes.  Another civil suit filed by Zerbe against Woods based on the February 27 “warning” lingered on for several years, but was also eventually dismissed.

As Zerbe was also to find out, you should be careful of what you ask for in filing a libel suit.  At the end of the libel suit, a judge who sat on the board of directors for the American Engineering Company requested a meeting to express his concerns over what he, the judge, had heard during the testimony in the libel suit.  After that meeting, Zerbe found himself in deep legal and professional trouble.  He was now faced with disbarment, removal from the American Engineering Company, as well as other unpleasant investigations into his seedy past.  By the end of this fiasco, Zerbe’s travails included:  being arrested for obtaining money under false pretenses; indicted (but not convicted) for improper use of client funds; sued by the vice president of the American Engineering Company for failing to repay a loan (leading to a 6 month jail term); and eventually being disbarred by the Patent Office in 1893.


Woods’ Final Years:  1895-1910

Even after the turbulent Coney Island railway affair, Woods continued to pursue an inventive career.  In fact, the period from about 1895 onward became a “watershed” for Woods’ inventive activity, including his ideas on electric railways.  In July 1895, Woods filed a patent application on a “recast” version of his electric railway.  That application became involved in two patent interferences.  Woods eventually lost both of those interferences, based on his lack of diligence in applying for the patent, but he still received U.S. Pat. No. 678,086 with all but six of the original patent claims.

In the words of Professor Fouché, Woods’ inventive career “began to truly flourish” by July 1896.  Most significantly, he began to foster a significant inventive relationship with General Electric and Westinghouse, the two mega-electric power companies at that time.  In fact, between 1900 and 1910, when Woods’ died, 22 patents, about half of Woods’ known patent portfolio, were assigned to General Electric, Westinghouse, or H. Ward Leonard, a major inventor in controlling systems and known to have supplied these two companies with such control devices.  That’s quite a finale for an inventive career that spanned around 3 decades, of which the first half was primarily spent just trying to make ends meet.


Parallels to and Differences from Thomas Edison

As stated earlier, Granville Woods is often referred as “The Black Edison.”  And for several reasons.  There’s a Cincinnati Enquirer article written in February 1997 for Black History Month that notes Woods and Thomas Edison went to court twice over what were apparently invention disputes.  Both times, Woods won.  There’s even a story, perhaps “folklore,” that Edison asked Woods to work for him, but Woods turned down Edison’s offer.

Admittedly, Edison, with close to 1100 patents to his name, is far better known than Woods.  But the parallels between these two inventive giants are striking in many respects.  Both were from Ohio.  Each came from very humble or modest family backgrounds.  Each was primarily self-taught and highly entrepreneurial.  Their scientific intellect was keen and often focused on electrical technologies.  The scope of their inventive discoveries was also quite varied, and extremely prolific.

But there are some key differences between Edison and Woods.  Most significantly, and unlike Edison, Woods was black, a minority.  Being black during the later-half of the 19th Century in a segregated society didn’t help Woods in gaining financial support for his inventive and entrepreneurial activities.  It was also very possible that some of the difficulties Woods had with his various financiers and partners, such as Gano and Zerbe, was because they took advantage of the fact that Woods was black.

Also unlike Edison, Wood’s inventive activity was far more focused on electrical communications and electric railways.  Woods also had far greater difficulty achieving financial success, but apparently did reach a modicum of success in the last 10 to 15 years of his life.  Sadly, Woods was also unable to develop any long-lasting business enterprises, and certainly nothing comparable to Edison’s General Electric Company.

Continue reading —> Woods’ Most Famous Invention: Induction Telegraphy.


*© Eric W. Guttag 2012, 2014.  (Based on a presentation made in February 2012 at the West Chester Library, West Chester, Ohio.)



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