Granville T. Woods

Granville T. Woods

Granville Woods is one of America's most notable (but ironically least known) inventors. He was born in Columbus, Ohio in April 23, 1856 and lived in New York from the late 19th century until his death in 1910.  Granville Woods received his first patent in 1884 and over the course of his life would invent fifteen new technologies for electric railways.  Granville Woods succeeded in selling many to his inventions to General Electric, Westinghouse and Bell Telephone Company.



Overhead Conducting System for Electric Railways
Granville T. Woods invented a version of the electrical apparatus which gave the trolley the name which it carries until this day (despite its current trendy nickname of 'Light Rail').  This electrical apparatus, the "trawler" or "trolley" is the electrical apparatus which provides electric traction power to the rail vehicle; transmitting power from the overhead catenary wire to the moving (or stationary) rail vehicle. 

Electric Railway Conduit System & The Third Rail
With this electrical patent Granville T. Woods invents the Conduit system used for wireless streetcar transit operation in Manhattan, Washington DC and other Cities.  After the great blizzard of 1888 all above ground, outdoor electrical wires (of any type) were banned on Manhattan Island.  Granville woods invented an innovative method for converting Manhattans existing and extensive mechanical cable car system to electric traction.  This was accomplished by removing the moving wire rope and pulleys and installing electrical contactor rails.  This was the first system to use rails instead of wires. 

Grandville Woods also invented a version of The Third Rail.  (Detailed in article near bottom of page).  Subway and Elevated systems  (such as the NYC subway system) and commuter rail systems (such as the Metro-North and Long Island Rail Road) still use the 3rd Rail power distribution system to this day. 


The Induction Telegraph System 
Granville T. Woods invention of the induction telegraph system allowed messages to be sent to and from moving trains, enabling train conductors and engineers to avoid collisions and report hazard on tracks ahead.  This invention actually anticipated today's wireless LAN Network (Local Area Network).   In this particular technology was used as a multiplex wireless cab signal system for railways

Granville T.  Woods' contribution to Mass Transit & Electric Railroading        Overview by David Head

Granville Woods is one of America’s most notable (but ironically least known) inventors. Although Granville T. Woods never became a household name, his reputation as an electrical genius spread throughout the industry. Granville Woods received his first patent in 1884 and over the course of his life would invent and patent several dozen different devices; including fifteen new technologies for electric railways.

In 1891 Granville T. Woods came to New York City; he brought with him the vision of electrifying transportation in New York.  Woods believed that New York’s horse drawn streetcars and the coal powered steam engines running on New York’s railroads and elevated transit lines could be replaced with clean, safe, electric traction.   Woods would invent a number of devices and bring forth several new technologies that would allow for the electrification and proliferation of New York’s Rapid Transit System.

Granville T.  Woods' Contribution to Railway Communication

By 1891, when Woods would move to New York City he had already become an accomplished inventor; inventing several devises that dramatically improved railway communication.  Woods’ inventions saved lives and helped prevent the almost routine train wrecks that occurred during his era.  One of Woods inventions was the "telegraphony" (1885); a device that allowed telegraph stations to send messages orally and via Morse Code over the same lines.  Woods’ invention of the "synchronous multiplex railway telegraph" (1887), allowed messages to be sent to and from moving trains, enabling train conductors and engineers to avoid collisions and report hazard on tracks ahead.

Granville T.  Woods' field shunting speed control system

Granville T. Woods invented an innovative field shunting speed control system for trolleys and electric rail cars; this system would replace the resistor based speed control systems then in use.  The earlier resistor based systems controlled train speed by reducing the electrical energy being supplied to the traction motors through the application of resistors.  This system was not only inefficient but also produced a great deal of heat, since excess energy would be converted to heat.  The excess heat was problematic when combined with the wooden trolleys and rail cars in use at that time; resistor based speed control systems could (and occasionally would) cause the wooden rail cars to spontaneously ignite. 

Granville Woods’ invented an electric rail car speed control system that used field shunting instead of resistors.  In this system, the field coil in the electric motor would have a portion (step) of its field coil added or removed from the circuit thereby supplying the motor with more or less energy allowing the car to accelerate, maintain speed or coast (and decelerate by using a regenerative braking system). 


The electric railway power distribution
systems invented by Granville T. Woods

On Saturday February 13th 1892 (roughly a year after Woods’ arrival in New York) Woods’ “Multiple Distributing Station System” was tested by the American Engineering Company and demonstrated to the public at Coney Island, Brooklyn.  The Demonstration amazed the crowd and made a very favorable impression with the electrical experts and surface railway magnates of that period.  This system was a dramatic departure from any previous distribution system for electric railway power.  This system allowed for the wireless transmission of electric power, utilizing principles of electro magnetic induction instead of overhead wires, a 3rd rail or any physical contact point. 

 Unfortunately, Wood’s dream of widespread implementation of the “Multiple Distributing Station System” would be derailed by the scurrilous tactics of Mr. James S. Zerbe of the American Engineering Company.  Woods eventually resorted to litigation after Mr. Zerbe and the American Engineering Company attempted to market his patented invention.  A newspaper article from that period states: “Mr. Woods asserts that he never received one penny compensation for the work done, while the [American Engineering] Company is preparing to reap a rich harvest.” 

Woods would eventually succeed in court, but this particular invention would not see widespread implementation.  Interestingly enough this invention was 100 years ahead of its time.  Wood’s Multiple Distributing Station System bears a striking resemblance to today’s experimental linear induction railroad propulsion systems.

However, the three other electric railway power distribution systems invented by woods would see widespread implementation.  During the 1890’s and Early 20th Century Woods' invented the "Electric Railway Conduit System" in 1891, which was used extensively on Washington D.C. and Manhattan’s Streetcar systems (see patented drawing and description above). 

Granville T. Woods also invented a 3rd Rail Power Distribution system.  The patent for third rail (Patent #687,098) was issued to Granville T. Woods in 1901.   This extremely durable and low maintenance system of power collection and distribution allowed for the electrification of “Heavy” rail operations such as passenger and freight railway lines. The third rail system also allowed for more efficient tunnel construction and underground train operation.  This type of power distribution system was implemented on Subway, railway and rapid transit lines around the world.  Third rail systems have been used in the New York City Subway System since its inception and continues to be used today.  


Woods other inventions include an improved air brake (a patent he sold to Westinghouse), an improved telephone transmitter.  Here is A list of patents issued to Granville T. Woods


Recognition of Granville T. Woods - His Inventions Made The NYC Subway System Possible

As we enter the 21st Century and begin preparations to celebrate the NYC Subway System's 100th year of operation, long overdue recognition is necessary for one of the fathers of rail transit and subway technology, Granville T. Woods.  Granville T. Woods inventions made the NYC subway system possible, and his innovations and creative brilliance helped shape modern society. 

Mr. David L. Head, Chairman of the Transport Workers Union Black History Committee, has been on a mission over the last 5 years to restore the legacy of Granville T. Woods.  Some suggestions on how best to honor him, and keep his legacy alive, include:

A permanent large bronze plaque and museum display at the New York City Transit Museum; demonstrating and describing his pivotal and significant inventions and their implementation within the NYC Subway System.  T

A wall mosaic or mural in a subway station uptown in the Village of Harlem.

A commemorative edition Metrocard & subway poster for the subway centennial in 2004

A Granville T. Woods award for excellence, that could be awarded annually to an MTA employee for innovation and excellence. 

The NYC Subway System will turn 100 on October 27th, 2004.  The upcoming centennial celebration provides a unique opportunity to look back and honor the people whose visions, ideas, innovations and perseverance made the NYC subway system possible.  Brooklyn Historic Railway welcomes your suggestions regarding the people who's contributions should be honored and innovative ways in which to honor them.  We will pass the information along to the MTA and provide you with additional contact information relating to the upcoming subway centennial. You can contact us here




Historic Newspaper Articles & Headlines

 The African Presence in Transportation - A great article written by David Head

          LINKS - Additional Information on Granville T. Woods


A list of patents issued to Granville T. Woods


Granville T. Woods: Inventor a page on Princeton University’s web site


Inventors Online Museum presents Granville T. Woods


Granville T Woods - Inventor - An informative page from about.com


Researched and written by  David L. Head, Chairman of the Transport Workers Union Black History Committee & Brian Kassel. 


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