Granville T. Woods: An Early STEM Pioneer

By Candice Frederick
April 22, 2016
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

Granville T. Woods. Image ID: 1219306

As we continue to recognize the achievements of people of color in S.T.E.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math education), Alicia Perez, Schomburg Communications Pre-Professional, pays tribute to one of the early pioneers: Granville T. Woods.

Granville T. Woods, who would have turned 160 years old on April 23, was known as the “Black Edison.” He registered nearly 60 patents—ranging from the development of the telephone to the multiplex telegraph. Born in Columbus, Ohio to a part-Native American, part black mother and a black father, Woods worked at a young age in various railway stations and blacksmithing jobs, and then received his formal education through night school and studying engineering. It wasn’t until he made the big move to New York City in 1876, however, that Woods realized his potential and skill in electricity and engineering.

Through Woods’s electrical expertise, he became an inventor at a time when financial support and backers typically did not support people of African-American descent, leaving many inventors without a chance to truly act on their genius. At one point, Woods was forced to defend himself in court twice against Thomas Edison due to a lawsuit over his Synchronous Multiplex Railway Telegraph, which Edison claimed was actually his idea. After Woods won his case, Edison offered him a position at the Edison Company, which he declined. As a result of being denied opportunities due to the color of his skin, Woods and his brother Lyates founded the Woods Railway Telegraph Company in 1884 and funded their own projects.

In April 1896, writer Sadie Hall highlighted that "the most remarkable invention of Mr. Woods is for the regulation of electric motors." Due to the intensive use of energy and inherently wasteful nature of electric motors at the time, Woods’s improvements allowed for less resistance and a reduction in the amount of loss. You can find more information in our collection, Writers' Program, New York City: Negroes of New York Collection housed in the Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Books Division.

In the Jean Blackwell Hudson Research and Reference Division, we have photos and a short description of 49 of Woods's inventions, compiled by author Jonathan Walker, as well as a detailed biography by David Head titled Granville T. Woods: African American Communication and Transportation Pioneer.