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.
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.
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.