Granville Woods – One of America’s Greatest Inventors

By Madeleine Holly-Rosing

When I first started developing the story of Boston Metaphysical Society, I wanted it to be representative of the American experience. Meaning it needed to include people of different classes, women and people of color.  I already had the characters of Samuel Hunter and Caitlin O’Sullivan pretty well mapped out, but I wanted to bring a different sensibility to the “team” I was creating.  I already knew that Bell, Edison, Tesla and Houdini were going to be part of the mix, but I wanted to see if I could find their contemporary in the African American community. Low and behold, after some research I discovered Granville Woods.

He was born in Columbus, Ohio in 1856 to free African-American parents, though some accounts claim his mother was part Native American.  Whether Woods had a little schooling or a lot during his formative years is a subject of debate, but he did find a job at a machine shop by the age of 10. Serving as an apprentice there, he learned the highly useful trades of a machinist and a blacksmith. One could only assume this is where his intellectual interest in engineering and mechanics took place. There are conflicting sources that claim he went to night school for two years to learn mechanical and electrical engineering while others say friends snuck out college library books to study on his own. Whatever the case, he was clearly driven by a need to learn.Granville Real Image

In 1872, Woods obtained a job as a fireman on the Danville and Southern Railroad in Missouri, eventually becoming an engineer. Denied promotions because of the color of his skin, he moved to Springfield, Illinois, and worked at the Springfield Iron Works. A few years later he took a job aboard the British Steamer, “Ironsides” eventually becoming its Chief Engineer.  Well-traveled and with a well-rounded background in his field, he returned to the United States and became an engineer with the Dayton and Southwestern Railroad in southwestern Ohio. In 1880, he moved to Cincinnati, Ohio to establish his business as an electrical engineer and an inventor.

That’s when his life got really interesting.

By all accounts he was fascinated with improving the telegraph system for the railroad and invented an apparatus he called a “telegraphony” which was a combination of a telephone and a telegraph. This device, which he patented in 1885, would allow a telegraph station to send voice and telegraph messages over a single wire. Woods eventually sold the rights to this device to Alexander Graham Bell’s company the American Bell Telephone Company. Though pioneered by Lucius Phelps in 1884, he later patented the Synchronous Multiplex Railway Telegraph which allowed communications between train stations from moving trains. This made it possible for moving trains to communicate with stations and other trains so they knew where they were at all times.

It wasn’t long before Thomas Edison got into the mix and claimed some of Wood’s patents for his own which was fairly typical for him at the time.  Woods had to sue Edison twice to defend his inventions. Both times he won, but it was always a struggle to be given credit where credit was due. Edison’s response to losing was to offer Woods a job at the Edison Company. Woods refused.

He moved to New York City and renamed his company the Woods Electric Company where he was joined by his brother, Lyates.  Apparently an inventor in his own right, Lyates had worked with his brother since he had first formed the company Woods Railway Telegraph Company in 1884. Unfortunately, very little is known about what his brother accomplished.

On the personal side, it is unclear whether Woods was ever married.  He was often referred to as the “Black Edison” during his lifetime which I find to be rather insulting, but those were the times he lived in.  Some sources claim he would refer to himself as being Australian in the belief that he would be given more respect than an American Negro.  After obtaining over 50 patents over the course of his lifetime, Woods died of a stroke in 1910. His resting place was an unmarked grave up until 1975 when historian M.A. Harris persuaded several corporations (General Electric, Westinghouse) who had benefitted from his inventions to donate money for a headstone. He succeeded and one was erected at St. Michael’s Cemetery in Elmhurst, Queens New York.

It has been my pleasure and honor to bring back to light this great American Inventor. I just hope I can do him justice in the stories I tell.

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Madeleine Holly-Rosing is the writer/creator of the steampunk supernatural webcomic Boston Metaphysical Society. She is currently running a Kickstarter Campaign (Jan. 22 – Feb. 21) to fund the printing of issue 3 in the six issue mini-series.

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Published in: on February 9, 2014 at 2:42 pm  Comments (4)  
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Around the world with 800 Steampunks

By Professor Elemental

I can’t tell you much about the Steampunk community in Denmark. I am writing this in Copenhagen on my way to a wedding gig in Sweden. I had sort of forgotten that Copenhagen wasn’t actually in Sweden,  so am delighted to find myself in Denmark by accident*. I can tell you this though; the Danish Steampunks have to wrap up warm. It’s cold enough to freeze your cogs off out here.

I’m a lucky fellow- thanks to my habit of shouting into microphones over music that someone else makes, I get to travel all over. Skipping from conventions to nightclubs to parties to Swedish weddings with abandon and a general lack of common sense. If I’m very lucky, on arrival I’ll find someone in a hat with goggles, a corset or a beard (sometimes all three) and inside I’ll breathe a sigh of relief. Chances are that the wearer will be polite, welcoming, have a good sense of humour and knowledge of the nearest pub. Wherever we are, the chances are that we’ll have more in common than there are differences between us, and that is a beautiful thing. But, depending on where you end up, there are differences- some subtle and some more pronounced. So, without further ado, I present a series of generalised, whimsical and hopefully welcome guide to the Steampunks of the world**

(*It strikes me that my lack of awareness of what country I am even in might not fill you with confidence as to my ability as a travel writer. Try not to dwell on it.)

(** I should point out that these observations are based only on my own experiences and are not to be taken terribly seriously.**)

(***Actually, I shouldn’t have to point that out at all, but since this is being published on the internet, one should always have an awareness that it might be read by an idiot. Don’t be that idiot.)

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AMERICA

If there’s one thing that I have learnt about America, it’s that it is actually made up of 50 countries united only by a common language and a fondness for guns. If there’s another thing I’ve learnt, it’s that breakfast is excellent. There are, of course, other commonalities, for example, when an American likes something- they really love something. Nowhere is this more true than in Steampunk, where are our American friends build enormous cybernetic arms, create lavish and complex back stories and align themselves to imaginary steamships with absolute commitment.

At one of my first conventions, I judged a ‘mad science’ competition when engineers and makers had crafted working robots, complex machines and self serving cocktail makers. They weren’t just for show- each and everything worked and worked well. It was a beauty to behold.

America applauds effort and success, and the enthusiastic attention to detail is often rewarded. Look at Steampunk Boba Fett, the incredible work of Brute Force Studios, the brilliant productions of the league of S.T.E.A.M, and the ludicrously slick stylings of Steam Powered Giraffe (and their legion of committed, sharply dressed fans) . You can see how America nurtures Steampunk heroes, quite justifiably.

There’s a downside to all this fervour of course.  In the world of fandom, the occasional lack of irony or understanding of context,  can occasionally let the side down. Taking the culture to its extremes can sometimes make it rather dry and some of the more in depth studies and panels can suck the fun out of what is, let’s face it, a brilliantly nonsensical world. It’s also no surprise that the odd angry blog or hysterical tumblr (usually existing as a screaming, inaccurate, low rent tabloid) tend to   originate in the USA. Being an American is not a spectator sport, everyone wants to be part of the show.

That’s why song ‘you remind me of a car’, celebrating complete ineptitude with women, doesn’t work on stage in America. Most of the time the dynamic is ruined by whoever I ask on stage being too damned happy to be there, and sometimes a far better performer than I am.

American Steampunks tend to gather in large faceless hotels, which look about as Steampunk as your local butchers*, so it’s a tribute to the commitment, enthusiasm and welcoming nature of American Steampunk societies that they can turn a local holiday inn to another universe through sheer force of will.

 (* a friend of mine often comments that, from the pictures on facebook, it looks like I basically travel back and forth to the same brown lobby, such is the inevitable sameness of convention hotels)

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 CANADA

The Canadian is a wiley fellow, and it is my firmly held belief that every Canadian holds in their soul, a secret as dark as the maple syrup that pumps through their hearts.

I can say that safely, without worrying that my twitter feed will be flooded with badly spelled death threats in capital letters, as the Canadians get it. They get the joke. From my experience with Canada’s Steampunks, they are a similarly impressive looking bunch, but perhaps with a lighter touch than their cousins across the border. In fact, they are so welcoming and polite that it would be easy to see them as rather conservative and straight laced. THIS IS A MISTAKE.

On my first trip to Canada, my ego unjustifiably swelled by virtue of foreign travel, I loudly proclaimed my concern that the Canadian ‘didn’t know how to party’ and boasted proudly of my innate British ability to drink and imbibe compared to my Canadian cousins.

Several hours later, I found myself crouched in a foetal position in the corner- head throbbing, full of the taste of maple whisky and god knows what else,  utterly ruined. While for the Canadian Steampunks all around me, the party was just getting started.

EUROPE

Yes, I know that the UK is in Europe, but such is our arrogance, that we prefer to think of Europe as those other countries near us*. My knowledge of Europunk (as nobody calls it) is limited, but from what I have seen, there is an effortless sense of style that puts the rest of us to shame. They are the closest we have to ‘cool’ Steampunks  and judging on how many of us go about our daily lives, that is to be cherished.  That can mean a slightly cooler reception too, although my view on this might be influenced by having only addressed European crowds shouting at top speed with a complete disregard for their native tongue.

Europe’s Steampunk scene is less conventions and more electro swing parties in cool locations, where fans gather to smoke endless cigarettes, drink exotic drinks and dance with a style and sexiness that we can only dream of.

(*And I am sure much of Europe is quite happy to keep a safe distance from us as well)

AUSTRALIA

I honestly have no idea. I was supposed to go to Oz last year, but the visa messed up so I was turned away at the airport. I have met one Australian Steampunk and he was lovely, so let’s assume the rest are too.

IRELAND

Delightful. Mental. Less emphasis on history and building pretend metal arms and more emphasis on mixing with other nerdy subcultures with a drink in both hands. The Irish are some of the best audiences in the world, thoroughly giving each performance their full attention and enthusiasm, while their heckling is crafted to such a fine art, that it’s often the best part of the show.  Once you’ve gone to an Irish convention, you want to live in it forever, but know you can’t because you’d die of alcohol poisoning within a week.

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ENGLAND

Ah, England, the birthplace of modern Steampunk. Probably. I have no idea. Either way, it’s the birth of the glorious/ dubious/ awful (depending on your point of view) Empire that inspired it. Overwhelmingly white and middle class, English Steampunk is a hotch potch of live action role play, meetings in pubs, home spun festivals, club nights and conventions. I once,  rather unfairly described British Steampunk culture as ‘an excuse to go drinking in a funny hat.’ While I now realise that I was talking more about myself than the culture, that isn’t so very crass as it sounds… Think of the fine times you have had in pubs with friends and strangers,  consider the humble glory of a night out with mates and ale- it’s not so very wrong to consider that as an important, but not essential part of English Steampunk culture.

There’s a homespun feel to the overall aesthetic, the professional polished creations of Herr Doktor, mixing equally well with my mate Phil dressed in a lab coat and wellies*. Every town seems to have a Steampunk group, but they are usually well hidden until the right moment. Friday and Saturday nights in English town centres are beset with football loving drunken goons, so it’s best we travel in packs for safety.

Everything you might need to know about Steampunk in the UK can be found at the Weekend at the Asylum Convention in Lincoln. It boasts more attendees than any other convention in Europe, has a fine tradition of drinking and has a rule book as extensive as a driver’s manual for an AT- AT. But that’s England. We love rules, almost as much as we love breaking them and then saying sorry afterwards.

I’ve been lucky enough to perform at Asylum five times and they’ve charitably nurtured my erratic performances, while I have watched the convention go from strength to strength. There’s even evidence of the unspoken class system which governs every aspect of British life, but is rarely acknowledged- posh balls to unplanned punkish parties, Weekend at Asylum can be enjoyed on a number of levels.

Same is true of the vibrant,   varied music scene; From the anarchic, punk brilliance of BB Black dog  to The Men Who Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing to the dark and twisted Mysterious freakshow and Bird Eats Baby. Then there’s the more subtle and refined stylings of Pocket watch and Sunday Driver– there’s something for all tastes, so long as you are willing to put on a funny hat and get the first round in.

(*Which, I might add makes a very fetching Dr Horrible outfit and has served him well.)

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Regardless of the accuracy of my geographical stereotyping, it’s safe to say that Steampunks are brilliant people. I’ve been lucky enough to meet hundreds, if not thousands and only two of them were twats. That’s a very good count all things considered. Polite, welcoming, ingenious, well read, nerdy, funny, creative people, usually with an inherent sense of their own ridiculousness; the people involved in our culture make it what it is. Largely thanks to corporations not knowing how to turn a quick buck out of Steampunk, it is still run by fans. There is no hierarchy; fan or maker, creator or promoter we are all bumbling through together. The differences are really superficial, while the similarities are just super.

Professor Elemental

www.professorelemental.com

Twitter: @prof_elemental

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Professor-Elemental/220071498035746

 

 

Published in: on February 9, 2014 at 2:33 pm  Comments (14)  
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