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Fascinating facts about Joshua Lionel Cowen inventor of Lionel Trains in 1901. Joshua Lionel Cowen
AT A GLANCE:
Joshua Lionel Cowen was an inventive guy and had always been very interested in trains. In 1901, he fitted a small motor under a model of a railroad flatcar, powered by a battery on 30 inches of track and the Lionel electric train was born. The first Lionel train was designed to attract window-shopping New Yorkers using the power of animated display. Since its humble beginning Lionel has sold more than 50 million train sets and today produces more than 300 miles of track each year.
THE STORY
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DID YOU KNOW?
Inventor: Joshua Lionel Cowen (aka Joshua Lionel Cohen)
Joshua Lionel Cowen photo courtesy www.lionel.com
Criteria: First practical. Entrepreneur.
Birth: August 25, 1877 in New York, New York
Death: September 8, 1965 in Palm Beach, Florida.
Nationality: American
Invention: Lionel trains in 1901
Electric Toy Train postage stamp courtesy www.usps.gov
Function: noun / trademark / named after the inventor
Definition: Electric trains to be used for both simple playing or by hobbyists in miniature rail road operation. Many collectors believe the trains and accessories that Lionel made in the two decades following World War II were the firm's best.
Milestones:
1893 entered the College of the City of New York
1896 joins Henner & Anderson, an early dry cell battery manufacturer
1897 he took a job at the Acme Lamp Company in New York as a battery lamp assembler
1899 Cowen received his first patent for a device that ignited a photographer's flash
1899 Cowen received a defense contract from the United States Navy to produce mine fuses
1900 Cowen and Harry C. Grant founded Lionel Manufacturing Company in New York City
1900 he filed his second patent which improved on the first design of his flash igniter
1901 Lionel Manufacturing Company begins selling electric fans, battery operated with a small motor
1901 Cowen developed the first Lionel train—a battery-powered “Electric Express.”
1904 Cowen married Cecelia Liberman
1909 Cowen was calling his model trains "The Standard of the World."
1910 Joshua changes is last name from Cohen to Cowan
1915 O-Gauge was introduced, which eventually became the most popular scale of train
1918 Lionel Manufacturing Company renamed Lionel Corporation
1947 In a interview with The New Yorker magazine, Cowan claims he invented the flashlight
1953 Lionel became was the largest toy manufacturer in the world
1959 Joshua sold all of his stock to his nephew, the infamous attorney, Roy Cohn
1959 Retired from Lionel Corporation
1999 Lionel trains were selected as one of the top 10 toys of the 20th century
toy train, model train, Lionel train, electric train, Joshua Lionel Cowen, Lionel, Harry C Grant, Lionel Manufacturing Company, Lionel Corporation, Lionel, LLC,  invention, history, inventor of, history of, who invented, invention of, fascinating facts.
The Story:
Joshua Lionel Cowen was an inventive guy and had always been very interested in trains. When he was seven, he whittled a miniature locomotive from wood. It exploded, however, when he tried to fit it with a tiny steam engine. Joshua had never forgotten his childhood experiment. In 1901, he fitted a small motor under a model of a railroad flatcar, a battery and 30 inches of track and the Lionel electric train was born.

Joshua  was born on Henry St. in Manhattan’s Lower East Side on August 25, 1877. He preferred playing ball, bicycling, hiking and tinkering with mechanical toys to formal education, and soon became fascinated with electricity, its transmission and its storage in batteries.

Cowen did so well in school that in 1893 he entered the College of the City of New York. But, he could not adjust to the confines of a formal education. In short order he dropped out, returned, again dropped out, enrolled at Columbia University, and dropped out there to become an apprentice to Henner & Anderson, an early dry cell battery manufacturer. Then he took a job at the Acme Lamp Company in New York as a battery lamp assembler. During his spare time he liked experimenting, one of many mechanically inclined young men who liked to tinker with things. These jobs gave Cowen the experience he needed to launch Lionel.

In 1899, he patented a device for igniting photographers’ flash powder by using dry cell batteries to heat a wire fuse. Cowen than parlayed this into a defense contract to equip 24,000 Navy mines with detonators. His ignorance of armament manufacture did not stop him. He used mercuric fulminate, a sensitive and powerful explosive (his supplier’s deliveryman told him, "The company said you should always keep a good deal around. It’s better to be dead than maimed"), and delivered the fuses to the Brooklyn Navy Yard on time by horse-drawn wagon at a gallop. In January 1900, he filed his second patent which improved on the his first design but again failed to give details.

On September 5, 1900, Cowen and a colleague from Acme, Harry C. Grant, started a business in lower Manhattan called the Lionel Manufacturing Company, but they had nothing to manufacture. One hot day when Cowen was sitting in his office waiting for a cool breeze he got the idea of an electric fan. He quickly assembled and marketed the electric fan, but the weather soon cooled and so did public interest. Soon after, Cowen was walking through lower Manhattan when he stopped at a toy store window where he saw, among the toys, a push train. He then had the vision of it going around a circle of track without needing attention. This was the vision which started a legend.

Cowen designed his first train, the Electric Express, not as a toy, but as an eye-catching display for toy stores. During Lionel's early days, Americans were captivated by the railroads and awed by electricity, still a rarity in many homes.

Cowen and Grants first customer was Ingersoll, the owner of the shop where Cowen saw the push train. Their first product was a large but simple, open gondola, called the "Electric Express", propelled by the previous fan motor. The track was merely two steel strips inserted into slotted ties with a 2 7/8 inch width between the rails, and was powered by a battery. Lionel's first trains were powered by a battery, soon replaced by the 110-volt electric transformer. Customers became curious about the Electric Express and, eventually, twelve of the showpieces Lionel trains were sold.

In June 1902 they decided to add something more interesting to the line with a "City Hall Park" trolley and a two foot suspension bridge. In 1903 they brought out an electric B & O locomotive and a motorized derrick car, and the original gondola was changed from wood to metal.

Several changes occurred in 1904. Cowen married Cecelia Liberman, the Lionel workshop was moved nine blocks to the north, and Cowen hired an Italian Immigrant, Mario Caruso. In future years it would be Caruso who did the dirtier job of keeping the factory running smoothly while Cowen managed sales.

In 1906 a great change took place in the line. In that year Lionel added a third rail which carried the current and the outer rails, which were the ground rails, were only 2 1/8 inches apart. This was the system adopted by most other manufacturers. They were rigidly pre-assembled. Three trolleys, two steam engines, two passenger cars, seven freight cars and a wall transformer were offered. Cowen's son, Lawrence, was born in 1907, and became the company's emblem on boxes and in catalogs and was later to become its President.

Lionel trains proved to be very popular, and before long Joshua Cowen was manufacturing cattle cars, coal cars, passenger cars, train stations, and tunnels. By 1909 Cowen was calling his trains "The Standard of the World." As more and more American homes were wired for electrical power, Lionel really took off. No toy benefited more from electricity than trains. It was 1910. Electric trains had become a big business.

In 1915, O-Gauge was introduced, which eventually became the most popular scale of train. Whatever the scale, Lionel Trains have become an active part of every child's beginning throughout the ages.

In 1929, Cowen unveiled the Transcontinental Limited, which stretched nine feet from its massive headlight to its ornate observation platform, complete with brass rail. It cost $110–more than a used Model T. The company was able to weather the Depression, when there was little money to spend on toys, and World War II, when there were no metals available to build toys with. Many collectors believe the trains and accessories that Lionel made in the two decades following World War II were the firm's best, and they focus on the products from those years.

An often repeated story in both book form and on the Web credits Cowan with inventing the flashlight. We have been told the story stems from an interview printed in The New Yorker magazine in 1947. Cowen stated he accidentally invented the flashlight in 1898, attaching small canisters containing batteries and light bulbs to a flower pot for the purpose of illuminating the plant. The invention was a flop, and Cowen sold the rights to the invention to Conrad Hubert, who decided to try selling the lights without the flower pot, the flashlight. Although the story could be true, they were both in New York at the same time, Cowan had worked for both a battery and a lamp manufacture, Hubert (having newly arrived in America from Russia) was looking for work and at the time of the article Cowan was already rich and famous and therefore did not need to remake history. But the only solid evidence is the New Yorker article. You can decide if the story is true.


The good times didn’t last. They never do. From 1953, Lionel’s best year, to 1959, sales dropped by more than half. In 1958, the company lost money for the first time since the Depression. In September 1959, the Cowen family members including Joshua sold their shares of stock to a group of businessmen led by Cowen’s great-nephew, Roy Cohn. Cohn paid $15 for each of his Lionel shares in 1959. Four years later, he sold them for $5.25. Lionel survives, having passed through numerous hands before falling into a group of investors including Neil Young, the singer and songwriter.

Youthful inventor Joshua Lionel Cowen wasn't the first to manufacture toy trains and he did not lack for competition. Carlisle & Finch Co., of Cincinnati, OH, first made electric trains in 1896 and German toy manufacturers such as Bing and Marklin were producing electric and steam-powered toy trains. The first electric train was exhibited at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago. The Ives Co., of Bridgeport, CT, had manufactured wind-up trains as early as 1874. Cowen beat them because he produced a reliable product, with an expanding line of accessories, while being an audacious promoter, selling his toys as educational because he knew parents needed a rationalization for their purchase: His talents as an engineer and salesman soon put Lionel ahead of its competitors. Lionel trains are unquestionably the greatest name in the history of toy trains.

TO LEARN MORE

RELATED INFORMATION:
Invention of Lionel Trains   from The Great Idea Finder
Invention of the Flashlight   from The Great Idea Finder
History of Toys  
from The Great Idea Finder

ON THE BOOKSHELF:
Toys!: Amazing Stories Behind Some Great Inventions
by Don L. Wulffson, Laurie Keller  / Hardcover - 128 pages (2000) / Henry Holt & Company
The quirky tales behind more than two dozen novelties, gadgets and games, from seesaws to Silly Putty and toy soldiers to Trivial Pursuit.

Why Didn't I Think of That?: Bizarre Origins of Ingenious Inventions We Couldn't Live Without
by Allyn Freeman, Bob Golden / Paperback - 260 pages / John Wiley & Sons; (September 1997)
Filled with wacky and fascinating facts, awe-inspiring success statistics, and rags-to-riches stories, Chronicles the odd origins behind 50 famous inventions and reveals the business side of each product's actual production, marketing, and distribution.

All Aboard!: The Story of Joshua Lionel Cowen and His Lionel Train Company
by Ron Hollander / Hardcover: 288 pages / Workman Publishing Company Rev edition (2000)
The marvelous story of Joshua Lionel Cowen and the toy trains he created. Originally published in 1981, ALL ABOARD! brings back the classic electric trains for all those who remember them.
Getting Started With Lionel Trains: Your Introduction to Model Railroading Fun
by Allan W. Miller / Paperback: 128 pages / Krause Publications (October 2001)

This information-packed guide helps train lovers of all ages gain the most enjoyment from their new Lionel train set by taking them step-by-step through the process of selecting, setting-up, operating and maintaining their trains and accessories.
Lionel: America's Favorite Toy Trains
by Gerry Souter, Janet Souter / Hardcover: 160 pages / Motorbooks International (October 2000)

They have the name that has come to symbolize durability, value, and imagination for 100 years. They have the loyalty of fans around the world. They have Lionel--America's Electric Train.
The Art of Lionel Trains: Toy Trains and American Dreams  (Limited Availability)
by Roger Carp / Hardcover: 144 pages / Kalmbach Publishing Company (October, 2003)
When it came to electric trains, no retail catalog could match the excitement generated by the latest Lionel catalog. Lionel's staff artists created images of shining streamliners racing across the Great Plains to the West Coast and smoking steam engines heroically dragging mile-long strings of freight cars from one city to another.

ON THE SCREEN:
A Century of Legendary Lionel Trains
DVD / Consumervision / ASIN: B00005YDDN / December 18, 2001 / Less than $25.00
One hundred years of Lionel model train history

History of Toys and Games
DVD / 1 Volume Set / 100 Minutes / The History Channel / Less than $30.00
As long as there have been children, there have been toys. And from wooden tops to virtual reality, America has always taken its playthings pretty seriously. Hear the fascinating stories of the young-at-heart inventors who created some of the most famous games and toys of all time, and meet the people who play for a living, trying to anticipate what kids will fall for next holiday season.


ON THE WEB:

Lionel Trains
Official site for Lionel Trains. One of the most popular toys of the century.
(URL: www.lionel.com)
Lionel Trains @ Popular Mechanics
For American children, especially boys, the toys most treasured on long-ago Christmas mornings were Lionel trains. Article by Mike Fillon for Popular Mechanics magazine.
(URL: www.popularmechanics.com/science/transportation/1289231.html?page=1&c=y)

Lionel and Railroads in America
When Lionel founder Joshua Lionel Cowen's immigrant family arrived in New York after the Civil War, the railroads were literally America's engines of progress.
(URL: www.lionel.com/CentralStation/LionelPastAndPresent/History.cfm)

Top 10 Toys of the 20th Century
In 1999, A&E produced an hour-long show ranking the top 10 toys of the 20th century. Lionel was number four, preceded only by the yoyo, crayons and Barbie. If Cowen had been alive, he would have screamed in protest. This was unfair. The trains should have come first. Article by By William Bryk for the New York Press. POP-UP ADS.
(URL: nypress.com/14/51/news&columns/oldsmoke.cfm)
The Rise and Fall and Rise Again of Lionel Trains
In the year 1901, Joshua Lionel Cowen (origially Cohen), a resident of New York City, sent a flatcar, with an electric motor and battery cleverly concealed underneath, around a small circle of brass track. From that unimportant event emerged a corporation and a legend. Article by Christopher Coleman.
(URL: www.spikesys.com/Modelrr/lionel.html)

National Toy Train Museum

The Train Collectors Association, headquartered in Strasburg, Pennsylvania, is one of the largest and most prestigious collecting societies in the world.
(URL: www.traincollectors.org/)
Model Train Mega-Site
The best place on the Internet for everything related to railroads, big and small. A Kalmbach Publishing Co site. Lots of COOKIES at this site.
(URL: www.trains.com)

Directory of World Wide Rail Sites
Maintained by the National Model Railroad Association.
(URL: www.cwrr.com/nmra/)

He Fed Our Dreams
The eighth of nine children, Joshua Lionel Cohen (he later changed it to Cowen) was born in New York City on August 25, 1877. Article by Hank Morris. Presented by the National Rail Historical Society.
(URL: www.nrhs.com/spot/lionel/)

The Kruger Street Toy & Train Museum

This museum believe's that all of us are children at heart.
(URL: www.toyandtrain.com/)
Lionel Collectors Club of America

We love trains and share our interest in the hobby with others; especially today's kids.
(URL: www.lionelcollectors.org/)
Antiques - Antique Lionel Trains :.
Lionel trains are unquestionably the greatest name in the history of toy trains. Whatever the scale, Lionel Trains have become an active part of every child's beginning throughout the ages.
(URL: www.atlantaantiquegallery.com/wsm/c-574_lionel_trains.html)

DID YOU KNOW?:

  • 1901 Electric Express, the first electrical Lionel train, begins production as an animated store-window display device. Track gauge is 2 7/8" between the outside rails.
  • 1902 First Lionel catalog issued; sixteen pages, in black and white.
  • 1906 Three-rail track system introduced by Lionel, replacing two-rail 2 7/8" gauge track. The new track system will eventually be termed "Standard Gauge" by Cowen.
  • 1930 Lionel introduces porcelain-steel electric range for girls. The $30 "toy" actually worked but was soon discontinued as Depression worsened.
  • 1934 Priced at only $1 for Depression-era families in need of inexpensive yet fun playthings, the Lionel Mickey & Minnie mechanical handcar helps reinvigorate Lionel’s financial position.
  • 1942 The Lionel "paper train" is produced during the holiday season. Essentially paper dolls shaped like Lionel’s product, the paper train is tough to assemble but fills a void until Lionel can return to its first art, the creation of the world’s most legendary electric trains.
  • 1959 Lionel’s financial position worsens. In a shocking turn of events, Joshua Lionel Cowen sells his interest in The Lionel Corporation to an investment group headed by Roy Cohn, thus ending the Cowen era at Lionel.
  • 1986 After many owners in the last 36 years, a number of groups consider the revered toy-maker, but the ultimate winner of Lionel is Wellspring Associates, an investment firm headed by Martin Davis of Gulf+Western and Paramount Communications fame, investment specialist Greg Feldman, and musician Neil Young.
  • 1996 Lionel issues its first fully-illustrated catalog in more than 30 years.
Designated trademarks and brands are the property of their respective owners.
Reference Sources in BOLD Type. This page revised April 9, 2007.
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