Thomas Edison tried to take credit for a device created by a Black American inventor – DNyuz

Thomas Edison tried to take credit for a device created by a Black American inventor

Thomas Edison is widely regarded as one of the most celebrated inventors in American history, pioneering technologies like the incandescent light bulb, the phonograph, and the motion picture camera.

Edison was a genius by his own right, but some historians say he also had a penchant for claiming other inventors’ patents.

One such inventor was Granville T. Woods, the most prolific Black inventor in the late 19th century. Woods was regarded the first African American mechanical and electrical engineer after the Civil War, and jostled with other prominent inventors like Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and Frank Sprague.

In 1887, Woods secured a patent for the induction telegraph, which allowed messages to be sent between moving trains and train stations. Woods’ discovery improved the communication system, which at that time was slow and sloppy, with the potential to cause train accidents.

Soon after Woods patented his invention, Edison sued Woods, arguing he had first created a similar telegraph and was thus entitled to the patent. Woods eventually won the battle over the patent, but the victory came at a hefty financial and personal cost, according to several historians.

“Woods’ life — at times closer to a nightmare than the American dream — clearly illustrates the harsh realities of being a Black inventor at the end of the 19th century,” historian Rayvon Fouche wrote in “Black Inventors in the Age of Segregation: Granville T. Woods, Lewis H. Latimer and Shelby J. Davison.”

Woods, ironically, was dubbed “Black Edison” by newspapers at the time for his contributions to science.

Woods’ inventions revolutionized transportation

Woods was born in Columbus, Ohio, to freed African Americans in 1856. When he was 10 years old, Woods had to stop attending school because his parents couldn’t continue paying for their children’s education.

Instead, Woods became an apprentice at a railroad shop, which became the springboard for his career as an engineer.

Woods went on to have nearly 60 patents to his name. Woods’ innovations, such as the “Dead Man’s Handle,” a brake which automatically slows trains down if an operator becomes incapacitated, revolutionized transportation. Woods also patented an innovation that led to the “third rail,” a crucial means of providing electricity to trains to keep them moving, according to the United States Patent and Trademark Office and the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Several biographers said that Woods spoke and dressed in an elegant fashion, often dressing in all black. He sometimes referred to himself as an immigrant from Australia, which biographers believe was a way to garner more respect than if people knew he was African American.

The legal battle with Edison

Among Woods’ most important inventions was the synchronous multiplex railway telegraph, which allowed messages to be sent uninterrupted between trains.

Before he could file for a patent, however, Woods caught smallpox and was bedridden for months. Historians describe how, upon recovery, Woods was shocked to learn that another inventor, Lucius Phelps, had been credited for a version of the induction telegraph.

Woods painstakingly used notes, sketches, and a working model of his invention to prove that he’d started developing the technology first, and won the patent in 1887.

But, the fight over the patent did not end here. Edison then sued Woods twice to prove that he was the first inventor of inductor-telegraph. According to historians, Woods won both suits. Woods turned down an offer from Edison to work at his company, according to some writers.

The challenges of being a Black inventor

Woods ultimately sold some of his patents and devices to Edison and other industrialists, as well as companies like Westinghouse, General Electric, and American Engineering. Historians attribute Woods’ sale of his patents as a recognition that Black American inventions were difficult to promote to a predominantly white audience.

“Like most other Black inventors of the era, Woods had to concede that the race of the inventor did affect the market value of the invention,” Michael C. Christopher wrote in the Journal of Black Studies.

Some of the people who bought Woods’ inventions didn’t pay him fairly, or failed to give him credit for his work, according to historians. Sometimes, inventors lost all claims to their inventions once sold, and received no profits.

Woods died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1910, destitute and virtually forgotten for decades. He was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2006.

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