Drop the name Edison, and most people will immediately know who you’re talking about. With 1,093 U.S. patents for his inventions (not to mention the 1,239 non-U.S. patents he was issued), he may be the most famous inventor there is.
Granville T. Woods was a contemporary of Edison, but mention his name and you’re likely to be met with a blank stare. An inventor himself, he wasn’t quite as prolific as Edison, but made enough of a name for himself that he was often known as the “Black Edison.” Woods was a railroad man, and worked as a blacksmith and a machinist before becoming an engineer. His inventions helped modernize the electric railroad: improvements to the air brake and the third rail, a steam boiler furnace, and the Synchronous Multiplex Railway Telegraph (U.S. Patent 373,915). Edison twice claimed that he was the original inventor of that telegraph system, which allowed for communication with moving trains, and twice lost his suit. After losing the second time he decided it might be better to just hire Woods (who perhaps unsurprisingly declined the offer).
With a few notable exceptions, the inventors behind the things that make our modern life, well, modern, tend to be unsung, and African American inventors perhaps especially so. Fortunately, many great resources exist to help us become more familiar with them. An incredible index, titled Index of Black Inventors by State or Country of Residence, 1834-2008, allows you to search by time period, location, inventor name, or patent number or title. You can find it on this page. And as always, if you find yourself with a burning desire to learn more, stop at one of our reference desks and we’ll be happy to help you track down some information!