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Pioneering Inventor: Granville T. Woods

Granville Tailer Woods was a Black American inventor who made significant contributions to transportation safety and automotive technology, whose genius still affects devices we use today. His particular interest was transportation, due to his experiences as a young man working for the railroad.

Born on April 23, 1856, in Columbus, Ohio, Woods was the child of an African-American father and a mother with Native American heritage. A bright child, Woods had to leave school at age 10 due to his family’s poverty. He went to work as an apprentice in a machine shop becoming a machinist and blacksmith. Some stories say he was lucky enough to get two years of college level-training in electrical and mechanical engineering, but there are no records of him attending any colleges where he might have studied this.

But however he received his education, he developed a brilliant understanding of engineering – in fact, many people called him “the Black Edison” for his inventions. In 1884, he received his first patent for a new type of steam boiler, but he was particularly interested in railway devices, having worked as an engineer with the Dayton and Southwestern Railroad.

Achievements in Transportation Safety

One of Woods’ earliest transport-related inventions, patented in 1887, was a device known as the “Synchronous Multiplex Railway Telegraph” (also called the “induction telegraph.”) This groundbreaking innovation aimed to prevent collisions between trains by allowing voice communication through telegraph wires. Anyone who has ever had to tediously type texts on a mobile phone can probably understand how this could be life-saving in an emergency. This telegraph system granted operators the ability to alert trains sharing the same track of any potential hazards, thereby minimizing the risk of accidents and saving countless lives. Woods even was able to defeat a patent claim by Thomas Edison himself for the technology.

Woods went on to enhance his railway safety device with additional patents, further refining his original concept and incorporating more advanced features. By enabling trains to communicate seamlessly and instantaneously, these inventions significantly reduced the likelihood of catastrophic collisions and derailments, making railways a more secure mode of transportation for passengers and cargo.

Expanding the Vision

Recognizing the potential of his invention beyond railways, Woods soon turned his attention to road transport and public safety. In 1897, he patented an automatic air brake for streetcars, buses, and other vehicles, which allowed drivers to apply the brakes instantly from a control mechanism within the vehicle. This innovation was a transformative step towards ensuring safer urban transportation, preventing accidents and minimizing injuries. While some credit him with inventing the air brake (which had actually been patented almost 40 years previously) he did make significant improvements to the concept with his designs.

In 1901, he patented a “power pick-up device” which is the basis of the “third rail” technology found in most electrically-powered public transit, making today’s subways and trolley systems more efficient.

Woods’ expertise extended to other areas of transportation safety as he recognized the pressing need for effective and efficient traffic control systems. His 1901 patent for an “Electric Railway System” showcased his visionary thinking, introducing methods for the tracking and control of vehicles through a centralized electrical network. Such a system enabled real-time monitoring of traffic volume, anticipating congestion, and allowing for better management of transportation resources.

Legacy and Recognition

Woods’ contributions to transportation safety were both visionary and pragmatic. By devising technologies that addressed the issues of communication, braking, and traffic control, he laid the foundation for modern transportation safety practices. His patents continue to influence advancements in this field, proving that his work is not only historically significant but also timeless in its impact.

Despite the groundbreaking nature of his inventions, Woods struggled against the discrimination prevalent during his era, with his innovations often overlooked or stolen by colleagues or larger corporations. (The world of 19th and 20th century inventors was one of unexpected skulduggery and backstabbing.) But his pursuit of improved transportation safety and efficiency helped create our world today.


Granville Tailer Woods was far beyond his time, revolutionizing transportation safety by introducing groundbreaking inventions that addressed a range of critical challenges within the industry. His genius and determination, coupled with his persistence in the face of adversity, continue to have a resounding impact on transportation safety today. Woods’ legacy serves as an inspiration for aspiring inventors and reminds us of the power of innovative thought and dedication in creating a safer world.


Transport safety is still a vital issue in the 21st century, and we can help you with your hazmat issues.  Contact ICC Compliance Center here at 888-442-9628 (U.S.) or 888-977-4834 (Canada) and ask for one of our Regulatory Experts. We have a full range of supplies and consulting for your transportation needs.

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Wikipedia, Granville Woods
Biography, Granville T. Woods

Barbara Foster

Barbara Foster graduated from Dalhousie University with a Master’s degree in Chemistry and a Bachelor’s degree in Education. As one of ICC Compliance Center’s most senior employees, she has worked in the Toronto office for the past three decades as a Regulatory Affairs Specialist and Trainer. She is fluent in various US, Canadian, and international regulations involving transportation, including TDG, 49 CFR, ICAO, IMDG, and the ADR/RID. She also specializes in the hazard communication standards of OSHA, WHMIS, CCCR, and the Globally Harmonized System for Classification and Labelling (GHS). Barbara is the author of ICC’s TDG Clear Language Driver and Handler’s Guide. Currently, she is a participant on the Canadian General Standards Board committee where she creates training standards for transportation of dangerous goods in Canada and is a past Chair of the Dangerous Goods Advisory Council.

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