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NEW YORK UNDERGROUND

About a Third-Rail Pioneer, Gallant Disagreement

David L. Head, a city bus driver, made it his mission to revive the legacy of the inventor Granville T. Woods.
Edwine Seymour for The New York Times
David L. Head, a city bus driver, made it his mission to revive the legacy of the inventor Granville T. Woods.

By SEWELL CHAN

Published: December 26, 2004

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FOR the past six years, a New York City bus driver named David L. Head has pored over newspaper clippings, patent records and scholarly articles to revive the memory of a long-forgotten 19th-century black inventor, Granville T. Woods, who contributed to the development of the electric railway.

He put together an exhibition on Woods that has been shown in bus and train depots, and is now on display at the Brooklyn Public Library on Grand Army Plaza. And his employer, New York City Transit, has incorporated that research into its yearlong celebration of the subway's centennial.

This month, four million MetroCards are being issued to commemorate Woods, who died in 1910. Each states: "This self-educated African-American inventor made subway travel possible in New York City when he patented the third-rail system for conducting electric power to railway cars."

The only problem is that the story may not be entirely accurate. While Woods was perhaps the most prolific black inventor of his time, his patent was only one of many for the technology that led to the modern-day electrified rail, according to Rayvon Fouché, a biographer of Woods.

In a book published last year, "Black Inventors in the Age of Segregation: Granville T. Woods, Lewis H. Latimer and Shelby J. Davidson," Dr. Fouché wrote what is considered the definitive account of Woods's life.

He concluded that Woods was at best a marginal figure in the field of transportation technology, one whose achievements have been exaggerated in recent decades because of society's yearning for heroes.

Far from rejecting Dr. Fouché's work, Mr. Head has sought advice from him and praised the meticulousness of his research. But the two men differ, politely. "I disagree with him totally," Mr. Head said while standing in the grand lobby of the Art Deco library. "Granville T. Woods was an extraordinary genius."

Dr. Fouché, a soft-spoken historian, is equally adamant that historical records do not support a rosy account of Woods's life. "He spent the majority of his adult life marginalized as an inventor," wrote Dr. Fouché, a professor of science and technology studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. His book describes the legal battles and financial instability that beset Woods, who died impoverished.

Perhaps no one could be a more fervent advocate for Woods than Mr. Head, 53, who drives the M1, M2, M7 and M60 routes in Manhattan. A native New Yorker, Mr. Head lives in South Ozone Park, Queens.

His interest in history burgeoned in the 1990's, when he discovered the dearth of information about black innovators. He is the chairman of the black history committee of his union, Local 100 of the Transport Workers Union, and spent thousands of hours studying Woods at four research libraries.

Mr. Head's passion is reflected in four informational panels that have been exhibited around the city crediting Woods with developing railway communication and power systems, specifically the electrified third rail. An accompanying brochure written by Mr. Head calls Woods "an electrical genius whose inventions were pivotal to the industrial age." The transit agency even created a Web site about Woods, at mta.nyc.ny.us/nyct/cen/woods.htm.

Dr. Fouché's biography of Woods is far less upbeat. "Woods's 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 nineteenth century," he wrote.

Transit officials did not appear to be aware of Dr. Fouché's research, but said they were satisfied by the accuracy of their portrayal. "We felt that based on the research of David Head and other historians, there was enough research to show that Woods held the patents," said Deirdre K. Parker, an agency spokeswoman.

As for Mr. Head, there is no disputing Woods's legacy. "He's a great role model and what American society is all about."


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