Any home baker will confirm that, even if you have all the right ingredients and follow the recipe, things don’t always turn out the way you envisioned. Such was the life of inventor extraordinaire Granville T. Woods.
Who was Granville T. Woods?
Woods was endowed with intellectual gifts that allowed him, despite no formal engineering study, to become one of the most prolific U.S. inventors in electrical and mechanical engineering during the late 19th century. He was born in Perth, Australia, on 23 April 1856. His parents emigrated to the United States when he was a small child and raised him in Ohio. These two émigrés weren’t schooled in the intricacies of Jim Crow etiquette—that web of unwritten rules that governed how a Black American conducted himself in the presence of whites and set a low ceiling for Black aspirations. And so their son grew up, unwilling to cede his agency to anyone.
By the time he died of a brain hemorrhage in 1910 at the age of 53, Woods had earned 45 patents. Most of his inventions dealt with electric railways and telegraphy. One of the most famous was the multiplex telegraph, a device that ingeniously combined the telephone and telegraph to both transmit telegrams and carry voice calls. It was the pinnacle of telecommunications technology of its day. The invention was purchased by none other than Alexander Graham Bell, who wanted to ensure that none of his rivals could use it. That payment gave Woods a short-lived period of freedom to focus on inventing. He made the most of it, soon coming up with the idea for a “troller,” a wheeled contact point at the end of an electric street car’s pantograph arm, which improved the transfer of current from overhead wires.
Despite his brilliance and relentless industry, Woods is mostly referred to—that is, when he is remembered at all—as the “Black Edison.” But a closer look at his story reveals decades of almosts and should’ve beens that would have broken the will of someone not also equipped with Woods’s indomitable spirit. Long story short: If money woes and the United States’ caste system hadn’t ensnared him, Woods would be a household name just like the ingenious contemporary with whom he is most often compared.
Why we need to remember history’s hidden figures
Woods and two other overlooked Black inventors, Lewis H. Latimer and Shelby J. Davidson, are the subjects of Black Inventors in the Age of Segregation by Rayvon Fouché (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003).
Now a professor of communication studies with a dual appointment in the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, in Evanston, Ill., Fouché says the most interesting discovery he made during the five years he spent researching the book was “how shrewd, and careful, and savvy these black inventors were. I can’t imagine what it felt like trying to...navigate that world and to negotiate the racism, discrimination, the politics, and the relentlessness of it all.”
As Fouché recounts in his book, Woods found himself repeatedly stymied by opportunists aiming to use his ingenuity as the seed for get-rich-quick schemes that cut the inventor out of the get-rich part. Time and again, employers and business associates reneged on promises to pay him for his work. He often lacked the funds to pay patent application fees or to build scale models of his inventions.
“I think Woods clearly recognized ‘No, I’m the smartest person in the room. I don’t need to work for you.’ ” —Rayvon Fouché, Northwestern University
Fouché describes how several business ventures fell apart because Woods’s partners refused to fund the inventor’s work or help to market the patented ideas despite promises to do just that. One such group agreed to pay for a 10-day trip to New York City so that Woods could drum up interest in the innovations for which the company held patent rights. More than half of the meager allotment was used to pay his train fare. Halfway through his stay, he was out of money, and his partners refused to send more. Left with nothing but his wits and steely determination, he began hatching a plan to extricate himself and his patents from the control of the company. Woods soon found himself embroiled in a court case, one of more than a dozen he would endure, in which he had to prove that either he was the originator of a novel idea or he had the legal right to benefit financially from a patent.
In another patent case, Woods went up against none other than Edison himself. Edison lost—and immediately offered Woods a job. Woods responded with an unequivocal no. It was a classic example of Woods’s unshakable belief in himself and his ideas. “I think Woods clearly recognized ‘No, I’m the smartest person in the room. I don’t need to work for you,’ “ says Fouché.
During his life, Woods gave conflicting explanations as to the source of his keen understanding of induction and other electrical phenomena. Fouché concludes that there is no way of knowing where and when he came by such knowledge. Anecdotes that he studied engineering in New York City in his early 20s are no doubt apocryphal. Fouché holds that, Woods’s telecommunications and transportation innovations notwithstanding, his greatest invention was himself.
Just as his self-made brilliance and perseverance looked as though they might be paying off, Woods died suddenly on 30 January 1910, at age 53.
It wasn’t long before Woods joined the ranks of hidden figures—Black people whose contributions to STEM fields have been erased from the historical record. Those missing pieces of history have a direct effect on the present, because today’s students never hear of inspiring people like Granville T. Woods. “I think it’s tragic,” says Fouché. For Black students, he says, “Seeing people that look like you, sound like you, or are from the place you’re from succeed makes it possible. It goes from being a dream or fantasy or hope to a material reality. You can say, ‘Oh, that person did that.’ So, it doesn’t seem so far-fetched. It doesn’t seem as if that’s not a place you’re supposed to be.”
But everyone needs to know this history, he adds. More than a century ago, during the era when Edison, Bell, Marconi, and Tesla were hatching the ideas for which they are widely remembered, says Fouché, “there were Black people who were some of the smartest people in the room, doing incredible things and bucking all the racism that existed.”
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