A Hidden Treasure of the Rail Industry

Written in collaboration with Jonathan Walker, Sr., P.E.

When we think of famous inventors, names such as Thomas Edison and Leonardo Da Vinci easily come to mind. Excluding the Wright brothers, the transportation field is not particularly filled with memorable inventors. This is probably because technological advances in transportation are often incremental, without the glamorous breakthroughs that most people generally associate with inventions – take for instance our recent post on the history of the traffic signal. Additionally, the ubiquity of transportation facilities, vehicles, and devices also helps to downplay the significance of the works of these innovators.

One such inventor is Granville Taylor Woods. While he was not the first to develop third rail power, he was granted patents for advancing third rail power technology. Woods also contributed to many other advancements in railway transportation including locomotive braking controllers, railcar intercom systems, telegraph communication for moving trains, and underground track power for streetcars in New York City during the late 1800s and earlier 1900s. He was the first Black American to be awarded at least forty-nine patents, a feat which has been documented in a new book by author and electrical engineer, Jonathan Walker, Sr.

A trailer for the new book by Jonathan Walker, Sr., P.E.

Granville Woods did not have much formal education and was at one time employed as a  church official charged with taking care of the edifice and its contents, ringing the bell, and sometimes burying the dead. By 1881, Woods had moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, and classified himself as an engineer. From 1886 to 1889, the self-trained inventor repaired electrical devices and appliances in a store front called Woods Electric Company in Cincinnati, Ohio. Woods had accumulated seventeen patents before moving to New York around 1891.

Some of Woods’ early patents were awarded for inventions that improved safety on railway cars. For instance, the electro-mechanical brake that he invented simplified and increased the durability of braking systems on railway cars. The device used the relative force of the railcar axle as braking power and centrifugal force as a governor, which controlled the braking force based on the speed of the railcar (Letters Patent No. 368,265). Woods also went on to patent the means of controlling brakes on railway cars using electro-magnetic force (Letters Patent No. 371,655).

Between June 3, 1884, and September 24, 1907, a total of 45 US patents were granted to Woods. The majority of these patents were developed for the railway industry even though there were only twenty-seven other patents assigned to individuals, partners, or companies. Though it was extremely rare for Black Americans to file a patent outside of the United States, the Canadian Intellectual Property Office (CIPO) also issued two patents to Woods: Canadian patent number 41,803 assigned to the Universal Electric Company of the city of New York and Canadian patent number 42,054 assigned to Granville Taylor Woods.

Even Thomas Edison’s company, the Edison General Electric Company, took an interest in three of Mr. Woods’ inventions. On January 28, 1892, the treasurer of the Edison Laboratory in Orange, New Jersey asked Mr. Arthur Edwin Kennelly—a consulting electrician—to review several device claims of Granville T. Woods’ patents. This visit was the start of Granville Taylor Woods assigning eight patents to The Edison General Electric Company from 1897 to 1904.

The most accurate information on Woods can be found in the book written by Jonathan Walker, Sr., titled “Granville Taylor Woods: The First Black American Who Was Granted Forty-Nine Patents; Photos and Short Description of Each Patent”. Walker has made available several free supplemental materials to accompany the book: several newsletters on each patent, a series of short films of key inventions, and a teacher’s lesson plan.

A supplemental video explaining Woods’ railway telegraphy invention

These materials are devoted to non-technical readers who desire a concise and accurate interpretation of Granville Taylor Woods’ patents. The short films are a series of informative video segments titled “Granville Taylor Woods: A Pioneer in Power Distribution and Safety for the Railway Industry.” The free supplemental materials can be accessed online. You can subscribe to free monthly newsletters on each patent by sending an email to info@GranvilleTaylorWoods.com with the subject “Subscribe to Monthly Newsletters.”

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