African-American Studies

Granville T. Woods, Known as "The Black Edison," Once Beat Edison in the Courtroom

You've probably never heard of Granville T. Woods, but this little-known inventor made key contributions to a handful of things you're very familiar with. Woods has been called "The Black Edison," which is ironic, seeing as he once defeated Thomas Edison in court over a patent.

Great Minds Think Alike

Granville T. Woods was born on April 23, 1856 in Columbus, Ohio. According to, Woods lived in New York City from 1876 to 1878 while "taking courses in engineering and electricity—a subject that he realized, early on, held the key to the future." As he worked in a handful of different railroad jobs throughout the late 1800s, Woods began putting together what would become his most important invention: "the inductor telegraph," also known as the multiplex telegraph. That was unfortunate for Thomas Edison, who had been working on a similar invention.

The multiplex telegraph, which came to fruition in 1887, allowed communications between trains and train stations over telegraph wires, "helping to speed up important communications and, subsequently, preventing crucial errors such as train accidents." Thomas Edison took Woods to court over this patent, but Woods came out on top. In a case of "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em," Edison offered to make Woods his partner. Woods said, "Nah." It's believed this beef is what sparked his nickname of "the Black Edison."

More Than a One-Hit Wonder

The Edison drama is by no means Woods' only claim to fame. Though the multiplex telegraph was considered his most important invention, Woods also invented 15 appliances for electric railways (some of which are still in use). He acquired 60 patents during his lifetime, including one for an improved telephone transmitter, which combined the telephone and telegraph, and was bought by none other than Alexander Graham Bell.

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Written by Joanie Faletto February 24, 2017

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