Robinson, William (1840–1921), inventor and engineer, was born 22 November 1840 at Coalisland, Co. Tyrone. His family emigrated to America when he was four, and settled at Brooklyn, New York. Educated locally, Robinson entered Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut, where he graduated with a science degree in 1865. Appointed principal of the high school at Ansonia, Connecticut, in the autumn of that year, he decided to work on the Pennsylvania oil fields the following summer. Returning to New York, he was principal of the Spring Valley Academy (1867–9), but he rejected teaching in favour of the oil business and moved (1869) to St Petersburg, Pennsylvania.
Robinson was always fascinated by railways, and worked for many years on various signalling systems aimed at preventing accidents. In 1869 he experimented successfully with an ‘open circuit’ method of signalling, and constructed a practical model demonstrating its use. This attracted much attention at the American Institute Fair in New York (1870) and Robinson was given the opportunity to install a prototype signalling system on a section of the Pennsylvania railroad later that year. Although the device worked perfectly, Robinson was not completely satisfied and continued experimenting with various closed-track circuit systems. The result of this exhaustive work was an electrical, automated, block-signalling system which he patented in the USA and France in 1872. Over the next few years Robinson began installing his system on American railroads, and in 1878 established the Union Electric Railway Signal Co. in St Petersburg, Pennsylvania, for this purpose; he sold the company three years later. Returning to live in Brooklyn, Robinson continued to work on many inventions, including a bond wire system to connect adjacent rails electrically, radial car trucks, and a new type of roller-skates. In 1906 he published his History of automatic electric and electrically controlled fluid pressure signal systems for railroads. Returning to university, he completed a Ph.D. in electrical and mechanical engineering at Boston University in 1907. A fellow of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, he was also an honorary member of the American Railway Association.
He died 2 January 1921 at his home, and was buried in Brooklyn. He did not marry. Robinson's breakthrough invention, the track circuit, became the basis for all signalling systems used in railways throughout the world and was credited, by the 1910 interstate commerce commission, with being the greatest contribution to the development of railway transportation safety and dispatch.