A summary of Lionel Train's history can be found in the October 19, 1952 issue of The New York Times (Section 3, page 3). The article is titled Along the Highways and Byways of Finance and is written by Robert H. Fetridge.
The photographs on this page are scanned from the book Lionel: A Collector's Guide and History - Volume VI: Advertising and Art by Tom McComas and James Tuohy (1981/1993, Chilton Book Company). This entire series is fantastic and worth owning if you have any interest in Lionel trains. This particular volume is a fascinating collection of the artwork and advertisements that appeared throughout the history of Lionel.
company away to work on model trains.
This foolish man was Joshua L. Cowen. That's him in the 1954 photograph on the right.
Cowen was your typical turn of the century inventor. Lots of ideas - some that worked, some that didn't.
His first major invention was intended to revolutionize photography. He designed a fuse to ignite magnesium powered flashes, but the invention was a dud.
His best customer for his fuses was the U. S. Navy. They didn't want to take pictures with his fuses, however. They bought 24,000 of them in 1898 to detonate underwater mines.
His next creation was the development of little metal tubes that were designed to illuminate flowers in their pots.
These illuminated flower pots were difficult to perfect (if he could have gotten them to dance to music, he would have earned a fortune). Cowen became bored with his flower pot lights and in 1898 gave the project away to one of his salesmen - some guy named Conrad Hubert. Hubert could care less about the lighted flower pots. Instead, he liked the device Cowen developed to operate them - a lightbulb and dry cell battery combination that had a 30 day life.
Hubert took Cowen's battery operated device and developed it into the flashlight. The company that Cowen gave away was named the American Eveready Company, and it earned Hubert nearly six million dollars in two decades (a large sum of money for the turn of the century). When Hubert died, he left behind a $15,000,000 estate, virtually all earned from Cowen's invention.
One would think that Cowen would feel like a real loser for giving an idea like Eveready batteries away for nothing, but he actually came up with a better idea that earned him even more money.
What I failed to mention was that the "L" in Joshua L. Cowen's name stood for Lionel - as in Lionel trains.
When Cowen gave away his flower pot light company, he turned his attention to these small electrical devices.
The first Lionel train that he produced was a flatbed car that ran on batteries.
He sold them as eye catching displays for shop windows. However, people quickly wanted them for their homes, particularly for under the Christmas tree.
By 1906, he had introduced the transformer and famous three rail track. In 1907, he introduced the first locomotive.
The rest is model train history.
Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.
If you liked this story, please check out