Joshua Lionel Cowen (originally Cohen) was born the eighth of nine children in New York City in 1877, to Eastern European immigrant parents. As a child he was always curious about how mechanical things worked. Thus, when he was a young teenager his parents enrolled him in the Peter Cooper Institute High School—named after the inventor of the steam locomotive—where Cowen got a practical education in the mechanical arts and sciences. After high school, and three unsuccessful stints at college, Cowen took a job as an apprentice at an early dry-cell battery manufacturer. He soon moved on to the Acme Electric Lamp Company in midtown Manhattan, where he assembled battery lamps.
In 1899, at only 22 years of age, Cowen filed his first federal patent for a battery-powered device that ignited a photographic flash. He named it the “Flash Lamp.” The device so impressed U.S. Navy officials that they gave Cowen a $12,000 contract to produce 24,000 detonators for underwater mines. With that money, Cowen and a partner set up a production facility in a Manhattan loft in 1900, and incorporated as the Lionel Manufacturing Company for the purpose of, “the manufacture of electrical, mechanical and industrial appliances . . . and toys.”
Walking to work one day through Manhattan’s business district, Cowen developed an interest in store window displays, which at the time were simply static arrangements of merchandise. He envisioned movement: things propelled around the window that would attract the attention of passers-by. He had been tinkering with using an electric motor to drive a small fan, so instead he designed a shallow wooden box on wheels that he propelled around a crude set of tracks with his electric fan motor. He named the product the “Electric Express” gondola, and sold the first one for four dollars to Robert Ingersoll’s novelty store in downtown Manhattan for a window display.
The new marketing tool sold quickly, although as it turned out most of the sales were made to people who bought the gondolas as a toy, rather than a marketing device. Taking his cue from the first crude electric train, invented in 1896, Cowen designed a realistic-looking electric trolley car, made entirely of metal, to replace the clunky wooden gondola boxes the company had been making. In 1902 Cowen published the first Lionel Electric Train catalog, a simple 16-page black-and-white booklet extolling the fun and adventure of model railroading. Today, 110 years later, the annual catalog is still published.
From the beginning, Cowen realized that railroads were more than just trains. His first catalog also included accessories: A two-foot long suspension bridge, a figure-8 track layout, and a bumper to stop the train at a dead-end siding. Also, so that every home with a small child could participate in this new hobby, Lionel Manufacturing offered the expensive “Electric Express” or the cheaper non-electric version, run by dry-cell batteries, for homes without electricity. Cowen also realized that children wanted toys for play... not just to sit and watch. This “play value” became a staple with a Lionel train, beginning with a 1903 rail car with a cast iron derrick. A hook at the end of the derrick’s cable could be cranked up and down to pick up freight and load it aboard a flat car.
By the 1930s, thanks to its extraordinary quality, Lionel electric trains had become the measure by which all others were judged. Overcoming the tough economic realities of the Great Depression and the WWII years when Lionel factories manufactured military instruments instead of trains, Joshua Cowen built his firm into a toy powerhouse. In 1953, the firm’s peak year, nearly $33 million worth of Lionel train sets were sold.
Cowen retired in late 1958, and sold his majority interest to his great nephew. But Lionel’s halcyon days were over, as was the Golden Age of Railroading, both brought down by the era of television, the popularity of the automobile, and a change in American pop culture. However, the name “Lionel Trains” lives on to this day serving a worldwide audience of model railroaders; and these magnificent toys are still available to hobbyists of all ages.
Joshua Lionel Cowen died on September 8, 1965.
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