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Progress: Andrew Jackson Beard

November 20, 2017

|Kaopua Sutton and Mae Gilliland Wright, PhD

The NRRHoF is creating a series of blog posts during the month of November titled “Take This Hammer: Stories of African American Railroaders.” Our blogs will be part of a year-long worldwide celebration of the opening of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture called Lift Every Voice.

Andrew Jackson Beard was born in Woodland, Alabama, in 1849. He worked alongside his family as a slave until his emancipation in 1865. Although he was only 15 years old, Beard needed a source of income. Sharecropping was one of the few opportunities available to him at the time. He married his wife, Edie, a year later. After several more years of working the land, Beard became a millwright in 1870. 


He combined his farming experience with his work in the mill and began to improve upon the design of the plows available in the area. The success of his mill and of his later venture into the real estate business allowed him to devote more 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 that cost significantly less than other steam engines to build and operate.


Later in life Beard went to work for the railroads. Railroads were extremely dangerous at the time. Although the invention of the Janney Coupler allowed cars to couple automatically, the design was not immediately implemented across the industry. Many railroad workers still had to couple cars manually, which resulted in injuries and, at times, limb loss. Beard developed an improved means of automatically coupling rail cars, naming it the Jenny Coupler. The mechanism consisted of two horizontal jaws locking together automatically when the cars bumped together—the patent for which he attained in 1897. He later sold the patent to this device for $50,000, improving work conditions for railroad employees and revolutionizing the railroad industry.

Rising from slavery to become an inventor of note, Andrew Jackson Beard followed a variety of occupations and improved the lives of countless Americans.

Further Reading:

Encyclopedia of Alabama — Andrew Jackson Beard:

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