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1965: Pioneer of Electric Model Trains Dies

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Cowen happened by a toy-store display window, when it occurred to him that a miniature, self-powered train running around a track would be a great draw for customers.Credit: Idan Eliyahu

September 8, 1965, is the date on which inventor Joshua Lionel Cowen, founder of Lionel model trains, died, at the age of 88.

Joshua Lionel Cowen was born in New York City’s Lower East Side on August 25, 1877, the eighth of nine children. His parents were Hymen Nathan Cohen, a hatmaker, and the former Rebecca Kantrowitz. (The son legally changed his name to “Cowen” in 1910.)

Already as a child and adolescent, Joshua displayed a propensity to take apart his toys to see how they operated – or in the case of his sisters’ dolls, to see how their eyes blinked. Despite his curiosity and cleverness, he was an inattentive student, and despite enrolling in both City College of New York, in 1893, and later Columbia University, he dropped out of both institutions early on.

In place of school, Cowen began working as an apprentice at Henner and Anderson, a company that manufactured one of the first dry-cell batteries, before moving on to the Acme Electric Light Company. He registered his first patent in 1899 for something he called a “flash lamp,” which used dry-cell batteries to ignite the magnesium powder used by photographers for illuminating flash pictures. The lamp was very similar to what we think of today as a flashlight, or torch, but wasn’t marketed for that purpose, and was soon abandoned.

The same year, 1899, Cowen received a contract from the U.S. Navy to design and manufacture a fuse to ignite 24,000 submarine mines. A year or two later, he created a battery-powered electric fan. The only problem with it, he later recalled, was that, “you could stand a foot away from the thing and not feel any breeze.”

While still pondering how to exploit the motor that ran the non-cooling fan, Cowen happened by a toy-store display window containing, among other things, a push train. It occurred to him that a miniature, self-powered train running around a track would be a great draw for customers, and he approached the store-owner with his idea. Having tried his first experiment with a toy train at age 7, outfitting it with a steam engine – which then exploded – it was not a great leap for Cowen to attach his newly designed motor to a model train.

He and his partner, Harry C. Grant, a partner from Acme Electric Light, assembled an open, flatbed car, onto which they attached the fan motor. They created a track with two brass strips mounted on wooden ties. They powered the invention, which they called the Electric Express, with a battery.

Within days, the owner of the shop, ordered another six of the trains, which had been intended merely for display, after customers clamored to buy them for home use. Very soon, Cowen and Grant were manufacturing their model trains for retail sale, and expanding the line. By 1902, they had added a trolley car and a locomotive, as well as suspension bridge for the tracks. For power, they switched from a battery to a 110-volt electric transformer. By 1906, they had added a third rail, which now carried the current, and changed the width between the rails to 2-1/8 inches, which now became the industry standard.

As more American homes were wired for electricity, Lionel trains, as they were called, became increasingly popular toys, and large, elaborate displays of trains in department and toy stores were a much-anticipated element of the Christmas buying season. The cost of a 1929 Blue Comet 400E engine was equivalent to that of a used Model T automobile.

The company, and Cowen personally, were hit hard by the Great Depression, and the company went into receivership. Relief came in 1934 with the sale of the first Mickey and Minnie Mouse hand cars, which sold 253,000 units during their first season.

Cowen married Cecelia Liberman in 1904, and the couple had two children. Cecelia died in 1946, and three years later, Cowen married Lillian Appel Herman.

By 1954, by which time one of Cowen’s sons, Lawrence, had taken over management of the company, sales had reached $33 million annually: Lionel Trains was the world’s largest toy manufacturer. Within six years, however, sales had dropped by half, the company was in debt, and Joshua, then followed by Lawrence, sold off their shares in the company to a great-nephew of Joshua’s – attorney Roy Cohn. Cohn was already well known for his work as a prosecutor in the Federal case against nuclear-espionage defendants Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and as counsel to Senator Joseph McCarthy in his pursuit of Communists in government employ.

Having also purchased Lionel shares on the open market, Cohn was able to take over the company, but he suffered such severe losses that by 1963, he was forced to sell out, at a significant loss.

In the following decades, Lionel Trains went through bankruptcy, buy-outs, reorganization several times. But by the early years of the current decade, the company seemed to be in strong financial hands and the trains were still being produced. One of those who helped steer the company back into viability was musician Neil Young, a fan of model trains. For some time, Young was actually an investor in Lionel. Although today, he no longer owns part of the company, he remains a technical consultant.

Joshua Lionel Cowen retired from business in 1959, at the same time he sold his shares in the company he created. He moved to Palm Beach, Florida, where he died on this day in 1965.

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