As a trailblazing inventor, Granville Woods set out to develop the railroad telegraph. This device transmitted messages through static electricity between moving trains.

His invention made it possible for trains to communicate with the station and with other trains. Prior to the railroad telegraph, moving trains were unable to communicate with each other or with rail stations, resulting in dangerous situations.

Born in Columbus, Ohio, Woods had little formal education. He left school at age 10 to work as an apprentice, studying to be a machinist. Woods held a variety of positions, including working as an engineer in a railroad machine shop, a steel mill, and as a railroad worker. In 1885, Woods began working on a device that allowed users to switch between voice or Morse code to transmit messages. The telegraph used static electricity from the existing telegraph lines running parallel to the train tracks, making messaging possible between moving trains and rail stations. The device allowed men to communicate by voice over telegraph wires, ultimately helping to speed up important communications and preventing train accidents.

Success led to lawsuits filed by Thomas Edison who sued Granville Woods claiming that he was the first inventor of the railway telegraph. Granville Woods eventually won, but Edison offered Woods a prominent position in the engineering department of Edison Electric Light Company in New York. Woods, preferring his independence, declined.

Woods’ later inventions dealt with more efficient use of electricity.  He created an overhead conducting system for rail and trolley cars to run on electric current instead of steam power. In addition, he devised a third rail that is still often used on many rail lines. The third rail carries electricity via electromagnetic switches and pulls trains along. He also improved the automatic air brake used by railroad cars. His patents were eventually bought and used by General Electric and the Westinghouse Air Brake Company. With his inventions aimed to provide safety, Woods continues to be one of the most prolific inventors in American history.

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