Andrew Jackson Beard
Andrew Jackson Beard rose from slavery to become an inventor of note whose automatic coupling system for railroad cars saved countless railroad workers from mutilation and death. His life epitomizes the possibilities available to those emancipated slaves who could adapt to and use the new conditions of their lives to their advantage. He followed a variety of occupations and enjoyed numerous opportunities for improving the lives of Americans.
Born into slavery in Woodland, Alabama, Andrew Beard worked on a plantation as a slave until emancipation in 1865. Then, at the age of 15, he began work as a farm laborer, marrying at sixteen and, in 1870, becoming a millwright. He combined his experiences farming with those of his work in the mill and began to improve upon the design of the plows available in the area. He bought and sold land as a sideline, earning a profit of $30,000, which enabled him to devote time to his inventions. He patented a new type of plow, which he sold in 1884 for $4,000. Further patents for the same technology were also sold and he moved on to pursue other inventions. In 1889, he designed a rotary engine, which cost significantly less than other steam engines to build and operate.
Later in life, Beard went to work for the railroads. While following this occupation he lost a leg trying to couple cars manually. As a result of this experience, he developed an improved means of automatically coupling rail cars, which he called the Jenny Coupler. He patented this coupler, by which two horizontal jaws engage when cars are pushed into each other, in 1897. He sold the patent to this device for $50,000 and revolutionized the railroad industry.