A multi-talented inventor, Granville Woods, dubbed the "black Edison," created the railroad telegraph, a device which transmitted messages between movingtrain via static electricity. This invention was an important advancement inrailroad safety, reducing the number of train wrecks by enabling engineers tocommunicate with each other and monitor track and weather conditions. Woodswas born in Columbus, Ohio, on April 23, 1856, the son of Tailer and Martha Woods. At the age of ten, he had to end his public education to take a job ina machine shop. However, he continued to seek tutoring and private classes inthe evening and borrowed books from the public library and friends to augment his studies.
Woods developed his mechanical skills by going to Missouri to work as a railroad engineer and fireman on the Iron Mountain Railroad. At the age of twenty,Woods began studying mechanical and electrical engineering, earning his tuition by working in a machine shop. In 1878, because he could find no jobs to suit his talents, he served as engineer of the British steamer Ironsides for two years. By 1880, he advanced to locomotive engineer for the Danvilleand Southern Railway Company, with which he served until 1884. During this era, he patented a steam boiler furnace which improved combustion and fuel economy.
While working in his shop, called Woods Electric Company, in Cincinnati withLyates, his brother and fellow inventor, Woods made a major breakthrough withthe invention of a synchronized railway telegraph, which enabled railroad companies to keep tabs on trains, thereby preventing crashes. In contrast to devices invented by Alexander Graham Bell, the unique quality of his innovationwas that it could send both voice or Morse code messages. He named this hybrid telephone and telegraph the "telegraphony" and sold it to the Bell Telephone Company. Pleased by his success, he abandoned manufacturing and concentrated solely on invention.
Woods created other practical electronic products: an electric telegraph transmitter, relay instrument, telegraph alarm, electromagnetic brake and brake housing, galvanic battery, safety devices to prevent shock from electric circuits, incubator, and circuit breaker, all of which he evolved between 1879 and1899. Additional inventions included an electrical translator and regulator,railway brakes, electrical thermostat, tunnel construction for streetcars, and dynamotor to avert fires on streetcars. From his design for the troller or"third rail," a grooved wheel which reduced friction while receiving electrical signals, the English language gained the word "trolley."
Woods's career was beset by difficulties. He successfully challenged both Lucius Phelps and Thomas Alva Edison for rights to a similar telegraph system. However, after he moved to New York in 1890, he spent much of his earnings onlitigation resulting from his charge that the American Engineering Company had stolen his electric streetcar concept. He suffered a stroke and died at Harlem Hospital in New York City on January 30, 1910, and was buried in St. Michael's Cemetery in Queens. Eulogizers honored him for modernizing public transportation. In 1969, a public school in Brooklyn was named for him.