African American Inventors and the Railroad

In the first article of this series we looked at the contribution of African American workers to the railroads in the U.S. and shared some great ideas of how to bring it all to life for children of all ages through model railroading and Lionel Trains.  Today we’re going to discover the key role that African American inventors played in the history of the railroad.

African American inventors played a pivotal role in the development of railroading technology.  Elijah J. McCoy invented a lubricating device in 1872 that allowed steam engines to be lubricated while they ran.  Legend has it that users of his device were so wary of the plethora of copycat products that hit the market on the heels of his invention that they always asked for “the real McCoy” – a phrase now part of the common U.S. vernacular.

In 1883, Humphrey H Reynolds, a Pullman porter, was the first to patent an improved window ventilator for railroad cars.  His invention was soon adopted on all Pullman cars but he received no payment from the Pullman Company.  Reynolds quit his job as a porter and successfully sued Pullman for $10,000.

The African American inventor who had arguably the greatest impact on the evolution of railroading technology was Granville T. Woods.  Woods is known to many as “The Black Edison” and held more than 60 patents, most of them related to railroading technology.  He patented his most famous device, the Synchronous Multiplex Railway Telegraph, in 1887.  The Multiplex Telegraph not only helped dispatchers locate trains, but it also allowed moving trains to communicate with each other by telegraph.  His invention was so successful that Thomas Edison himself tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to contest the patent.  Later Edison tried to gain the patent by offering Woods a partnership in one of his businesses, which Woods famously refused.  Ever the entrepreneur, Woods preferred his independence.

Invite your kids to develop their own railroad inventions.  What would they create?  How would they market it?  How would they protect it?

Side Bar: Lionel’s Pullman Porter figurine, Pullman passenger cars and Milwaukee Road sleeper cars provide a fun way to showcase the contribution of African Americans to the railroad for kids.

  1. Inventors










Lionel Trains


Photo courtesy of Lionel L.L.C. All rights reserved


  1. Granville Taylor Woods

    Details Facts On Granville Taylor Woods
    New book titled “Granville Taylor Woods: The First Black American Who Was Granted Forty-nine Patents”

    There is supplemental material online which supports the book such as forty-nine free newsletters—one each month—which summarize each patent for those who subscribe via e-mail and there are several free short videos that discuss Mr. Woods’ patents related to the railway industry. For more information on free newsletters, photos, and videos, the author has created the following e-mail account, social networks, and video hosting websites:


  2. ronald johnson

    what is his name

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