Granville Woods

Granville Woods - blackinventor.comThe magnitude of an inventors work can often be defined by the esteem in which he is held by fellow inventors. If this is the case, then Granville Woods was certainly a respected inventor as he was often referred to as the “Black Thomas Edison.”

Granville Woods was born on April 23, 1856 in Columbus, Ohio. He spent his early years attending school until the age of 10 at which point he began working in a machine shop repairing railroad equipment and machinery. Intrigued by the electricity that powered the machinery, Woods studied other machine workers as they attended to different pieces of equipment and paid other workers to sit down and explain electrical concepts to him. Over the next few years, Woods moved around the country working on railroads and in steel rolling mills. This experience helped to prepare him for a formal education studying engineering (surprisingly, it is unknown exactly where he attended school but it is believed it was an eastern college.)

[ad name=”336×280″]After two years of studying, Woods obtained a job as an engineer on a British steamship called the Ironsides. Two years later he obtained employment with D & S Railroads, driving a steam locomotive. Unfortunately, despite his high aptitude and valuable education and expertise, Woods was denied opportunities and promotions because of the color of his skin. Out of frustration and a desire to promote his abilities, Woods, along with his brother Lyates, formed the Woods Railway Telegraph Company in 1884. The company manufactured and sold telephone, telegraph and electrical equipment. One of the early inventions from the company was an improved steam boiler furnace and this was followed up by an improved telephone transmitter which had superior clarity of sound and could provide for longer range of distance for transmission.

In 1885, Woods patented a apparatus which was a combination of a telephone and a telegraph. The device, which he called “telegraphony,” would allow a telegraph station to send voice and telegraph messages over a single wire. The device was so successful that he later sold it to the American Bell Telephone Company. In 1887, Woods developed his most important invention to date – a device he called Synchronous Multiplex Railway Telegraph. A variation of the “induction telegraph,” it allowed for messages to be sent from moving trains and railway stations. By allowing dispatchers to know the location of each train, it provided for greater safety and a decrease in railway accidents.


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Granville Woods often had difficulties in enjoying his success as other inventors made claims to his devices. Thomas Edison made one of these claims, stating that he had first created a similar telegraph and that he was entitled to the patent for the device. Woods was twice successful in defending himself, proving that there were no other devices upon which he could have depended or relied upon to make his device. After the second defeat, Edison decided that it would be better to work with Granville Woods than against him and thus offered him a position with the Edison Company.

In 1892, Woods used his knowledge of electrical systems in creating a method of supplying electricity to a train without any exposed wires or secondary batteries. Approximately every 12 feet, electricity would be passed to the train as it passed over an iron block. He first demonstrated the device as an amusement apparatus at the Coney Island amusement park and while it amused patrons, it would be a novel approach towards making safer travel for trains.

[ad name=”300×250″]Many of Woods inventions attempted to increase efficiency and safety railroad cars, Woods developed the concept of a third rail which would allow a train to receive more electricity while also encountering less friction. This concept is still used on subway train platforms in major cities in the United States.

Over the course of his life time Granville Woods would obtain more than 50 patents for inventions including an automatic brake and an egg incubator and for improvements to other inventions such as safety circuits, telegraph, telephone, and phonograph. When he died on January 30, 1910 in New York City he had become an admired and well respected inventor, having sold a number of his devices to such giants as Westinghouse, General Electric and American Engineering – more importantly the world knew him as the Black Thomas Edison.


Granville Woods Biography


George Alcorn

George Alcorn -

Pioneer in the fields of aerospace and semiconductor devices.

A noted academic and administrator, George Edward Alcorn, Jr. is a noted pioneer in the field of semiconductor devices and one of the top inventors in the field of aerospace.

Born March 22, 1940 in Indianapolis, Indiana, George was the son of Arletta and George Alcorn, Sr., an auto mechanic. Both parents promoted the virtu of education to George, Jr. and his younger brother Charles.

[ad name=”336×280″]George was an excellent student in high school and entered Occidental College in Los Angeles, California on an academic scholarship. He was a remarkable athlete and received varsity letters in baseball and football. He also graduated with honors with a degree in physics in 1962 and followed this by enrolling in the Nuclear Physics program at Howard University. He completed his Master’s work in 1963.

He obtained work during the summers of 1962 and 1963 at North American Rockwell, a leading aerospace company. He worked in the company’s the space division and was assigned to perform computer analysis on the orbital mechanics and launch trajectories for rockets and missiles. Some of his work involved the Titan and Saturn rockets from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Apollo space missions and well as the NOVA missile.

In 1964, Alcorn applied for a research grant from NASA to study the concept of negative ion formation. He was awarded the grant and conducted his research from 1965 to 1967. At the same time, he was enrolled in the Physics program at Howard University and received a PhD in Atomic and Molecular physics in 1967. Finally, after tremendous success and researcher, George took a moment to focus on his personal life and got married to Marie DaViller in 1969.

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Alcorn signed on with Philco-Ford, a division of the Ford Motor Company. Philco-Ford produced a wide array of products, ranging from car radio to television set. It also had an aerospace division which developed satellite tracking systems for NASA’s manned space program. Alcorn served as a senior scientist for the aerospace division. He later worked as a senior physicist for Perkin Elmer, a multinational technology corporation and then as an advisory engineer for International Business Machines (IBM). His relationship with IBM proved quite valuable in 1973 when he was selected to teach as an IBM Visiting Professor in Electrical Engineering at Howard University (eventually becoming a full professor). As if his schedule was not already busy enough, he also taught Electrical Engineering at the University of the District of Columbia as a full professor.

In 1978, Alcorn left IBM and joined NASA where he invented an imaging X-ray spectrometer which used thermomigration of aluminum. X-ray spectrometry is used to provide data which can be analyzed for a number of applications, including for obtaining information about remote solar systems and other space objects. He would receive a patent for the device in 1984. As a result of the significance of this work, he was the NASA/GSFC Inventor of the Year (GSFC is an acronym for the Goddard Space Flight Center, NASA’s first space flight center established in May of 1959). In 1986 he developed an improved method of fabrication using laser drilling.

[ad name=”300×250″]Because of his success in his endeavors, NASA placed him in an administrative/management position as the deputy project manager for advanced development of new technologies for use in the International Space Station, Freedom. In 1990 he was named the manager for advanced programs for NASA/GSFC and in 1992 became the head of the Office of Commercial Programs at GSFC, helping to find commercial uses for the new technologies developed at GSFC. Later he ran the GSFC Evolution program which oversaw the development and running of the space station. In 1994, he oversaw a space shuttle experiment which utilized a “Robot Operated Material Processing System” to conduct the manufacturing of material in the microgravity of space.

In 1999, he was awarded the Government Technology Leadership award and two years later was awarded special congressional recognition for his work for aiding business in the Virgin Island in employing technology. Finally in 2005 he was named the Assistant Director for Standard/Excellent – Applied Engineering and Technology Directorate for GSFC.

George Alcorn

Over his career, Alcorn created numerous noteworthy inventions and secured more than 25 patents. He is seen as a pioneer in the field of plasma semiconductor devices. His concept and implementation of “plasma etching” has become a standard in the industry. He also served his community well over the years, involving himself in programs aimed at recruiting minorities and women to NASA as well as programs to encourage inner-city children to focus on science. In 1984, Alcorn was awarded the NASA-EEO medal for his efforts and was honored by Howard University with its Heritage of Greatness award.

George Alcorn is a well-rounded academic and leader in the field of space science, but his contributions as a manager as well as a community leader distinguishes him in the field of science.


Interview with George Alcorn

James West

James West - blackinventor.comJames Edward West was born on February 10, 1931 in Prince Edward County, Virginia. He was an inquisitive young boy, fascinated with electronics and always ready to take things apart to discover how they worked. His curiosity almost got the better of him when he was eight years old and decided repair a broken radio. Confident that he had fixed the radio, he plugged it into a ceiling outlet, standing on the brass footboard of his bed. Unfortunately, a bolt of 120 volts of electricity shot through his body, temporarily paralyzing him where he stood. Fortunately his brother was standing nearby and knocked him onto the floor, terminating the shock he was receiving. Undeterred, rather than being afraid he became even further intrigued by electronics and electricity.

[ad name=”336×280″]Although his father had encouraged him to pursue an education, he pushed him to go to medical school, noting that very few Blacks were ever hired by universities for science oriented careers. His father was afraid that James was “taking the long road toward working at the post office.” After graduating from high school, however, West enrolled at Temple University in 1953 and received a Bachelor of Science degree in Physics in 1957. While in school, he had worked during the summers as an intern for the Acoustics Research Department at Bell Laboratories in Murray Hills, New Jersey. Upon graduation he was hired by Bell Labs in a full-time position as an acoustical scientist specializing in electroacoustics, physical and architectural acoustics.

In 1960, West was teamed up with Gerhard M. Sessler, a German-born physicist, and the two were tasked to develop an inexpensive, highly sensitive and compact microphone. At the time, condenser microphones were used in most telephones, but were expensive to manufacture and necessitated the use of a large battery source. Microphones convert sound waves into electrical voltages, thus allowing the sound to be transmitted through a cord to a receiver.

Because of the associated expense of condenser microphones, they were impractical for everyday home usage. West and Sessler decided to use an electret (an electrical insulator material) using an inexpensive film made of teflon and stretched it taut so that it hung over the top of a metal surface. After being exposed to an electrical field, the electret was able to hold its charge. As West described, “as you talk into the microphone, pressure fluctuations in the air distort the film. Charges in the metal surface experience fluctuating forces as the polarized electret moves above it. As a result of these forces, a very small current flows from the metal surface through a wire that touches it.” Their electret microphone solved every problem they were seeking to address. It was inexpensive, could hold a charge without having to be connected to a power source, was compact and durable and could be applied to common uses in the office or in the home. The final model was finished in 1962 and on January 14, 1964, the pair received patent number 3,118,022 for their “electroacoustic transducer.” By 1968, the microphone was in wide scale production and was quickly adopted as the industry standard. Approximately 90% of microphones in use today are based on this invention and almost all telephones utilize it, as well as tape recorders, camcorders, baby monitors and hearing aids.

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While the foil-electret microphone was his most noted invention, West obtained more than 100 U.S. and foreign patents over his lifetime and contributed to hundreds of technical papers and books on acoustics and physics. Perhaps his most significant contributions are his efforts to increase minority and female participation in the field of science. He has headed numerous programs with Bell Labs (founding member of the Association of Black Labs Employees) and upon retiring from the company in 2001 (as a Bell Labs Fellow), he became a research professor at Whiting School of Engineering at Johns Hopkins University (where he serves on the Divisional Diversity Council.

James West received many honors during his career, including being inducted into the Inventor’s Hall of Fame in 1999, Inventor of the Year (by the state of New Jersey) in 1995, elected as the President of the Acoustical Society of America in 1998 and elected to the National Academy of Engineering the same year. In 2000, he was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Science by the New Jersey Institute of Technology. He undoubtedly is proud that he was able to exceed his father’s expectations.

Black Inventor -

Benjamin Thornton

In 1935, Benjamin Thornton created a device that could be attached to a telephone and could be set to record a voice message from a caller. By utilizing a clock attachment, the machine could also forward the messages as well as keep track of the time they were made.

This device was the predecessor of today’s answering machine.

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Valerie Thomas

Valerie Thomas - blackinventor.comAs a child, Valerie Thomas became fascinated with the mysteries of technology, tinkering with electronics with her father and reading books on electronics written for adolescent boys. The likelihood of her enjoying a career in science seemed bleak, as her all-girls high school did not push her to take advanced science or math classes or encourage her in that direction. Nonetheless, her curiosity was piqued and upon her graduation from high school, she set out on the path to become a scientist.

[ad name=”336×280″]Thomas enrolled at Morgan State University and performed exceedingly well as a student, graduating with a degree in physics (one of only two women in her class to do so). She accepted a position with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), serving as a data analyst. After establishing herself within the agency, she was asked to manage the “Landsat” project, an image processing system that would allow a satellite to transmit images from space.

In 1976 Thomas attended a scientific seminar where she viewed an exhibit demonstrating an illusion. The exhibit used concave mirrors to fool the viewer into believing that a light bulb was glowing even after it had been unscrewed from its socket. Thomas was fascinated by what she saw, and imagined the commercial opportunities for creating illusions in this manner.

In 1977 she began experimenting with flat mirrors and concave mirrors. Flat mirrors, of course, provide a reflection of an object which appear to lie behind the glass surface. A concave mirror, on the other hand, presents a reflection that appears to exist in front of the glass, thereby providing the illusion that they exist in a three-dimensional manner. Thomas believed that images, presented in this way could provide a more accurate, if not more interesting, manner of representing video data. She not only viewed the process as a potential breakthrough for commercial television, but also as scientific tool for NASA and its image delivery system.

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Thomas applied for a patent for her process on December 28, 1978 and the patent was issued on October 21, 1980. The invention was similar to the technique of holographic production of image recording which uses coherent radiation and employs front wave reconstruction techniques which render the process unfeasible due to the enormous expense and complicated setup. Parabolic mirrors, however, can render these optical illusions with the use use of a concave mirror near the subject image and a second concave mirror at a remote site. In the description of her patent, the process is explained. “Optical illusions may be produced by parabolic mirrors wherein such images produced thereby are possessed with three dimensional attributes. The optical effect may be explained by the fact that the human eyes see an object from two view points separated laterally by about six centimeters. The two views show slightly different spatial relationships between near and near distant objects and the visual process fuses these stereoscopic views to a single three dimensional impression. The same parallax view of an object may be experienced upon reflection of an object seen from a concave mirror.” ( The Illusion Transmitter would thus enable the users to render three-dimensional illusions in real-time.

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Valerie Thomas continued working for NASA until 1995 when she retired. In addition to her work with the Illusion Transmitter she designed programs to research Halley’s comet and ozone holes. She received numerous awards for her service, including the GSFC Award of Merit and the NASA Equal Opportunity Medal. In her career, she showed that the magic of fascination can often lead to concrete scientific applications for real-world problem-solving.

Lewis Temple

Lewis Temple - blackinventor.comLewis Temple was born in 1800 as a slave in Richmond, Virginia. He obtained his freedom and moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts in 1829 where he worked as a blacksmith.

Later that year he married Mary Clark, with whom he would later have three children. He also opened a whalecraft store although he had no experience with whaling or as a seaman. In 1845, Temple was enjoying so much success that he was able to open a larger whalecraft store.

[ad name=”336×280″]The New England region was the capital of the whaling industry. Whale meat and oil was very valuable and the industry provided jobs to seamen and seafront businesses. A big concern for these people was the inability to develop a surefire method of successfully hunting whales. The existing methods of the day often ended in failure as the whales were disengage themselves from the whalers harpoons by spinning and thrashing about.

In 1848 Temple set out to make an improved harpoon that could withstand the enormous strength of the large mammals and would be difficult to escape from. He developed a harpoon with a pivoting head that stayed embedded within the creature. Calling the invention Temple’s Toggle or Temple’s Iron, the harpoon was actually very similar to hunting tolls used by whale hunters during prehistoric times. His harpoon became a great success, but he never patented it. As such, many blacksmiths began copying the device and selling it as their own. Nonetheless, he enjoyed enough success that he needed to build an even larger shop.

[ad name=”300×250″]Unfortunately, in 1854 while the new shop was under construction, Temple fell into a hole near the shop and was unable to work. The hole was the result of construction by the city and Temple successfully sued and was awarded $2,000.00 by the court. He never received any of the payment, for he died a few short weeks later as a result of his injuries. All of the profits he had made on his harpoon and his business went to paying for his debts and his family was unable to collect on the money awarded by the court – a strange and ironic tragedy that a made who did so much for the town during his life, would be ignored in death.

Though the City of New Bedford did not recognize their obligation to debt to him at his death, the industry owed him much more because of his invention. Experts after his death agreed with Clifford Ashley, who announced that his Temple’s harpoon was “the single most important invention in the whole history of whaling.”