December 31, 2012
Vanderbilt. Stanford. James J. Hill. Morgan.
The great railroad builders.
Into that mix, you have to throw in Joshua L. Cowen.
He was your typical turn of the century inventor. Lots of harebrained ideas.
Some that worked, some didn't.
He designed a fuse to ignite magnesium-powered flashes to revolutionize photography.
The U.S.Navy bought 24,000 of them in 1898 to detonate underwater mines.
Next project was the development of little metal tubes that were designed to illuminate flowers in their pots.
He gave the idea away in 1898 to one of his salesmen, some guy named Conrad Hubert, who turned Cowen’s idea into a flashlight and the Eveready Company and made millions.
But was Cowen discouraged?
He was too busy coming up with a better idea.
Did I mention the "L" in Joshua L. Cowen's name stood for Lionel?
During the Victorian period, there were model trains with live steam engines, mainly for the wealthy.
Märklin, a German toy company, came out with the first complete system of trains.
But Cowen, from a small dingy office in New York City, invented the electric train.
The first one was a flatbed car that ran on batteries.
He sold them as eye-catching displays for shop windows.
Wasn't long before people 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.
Lionel model trains were soon selling over 50 million train sets, more than all his competition combined.
Because Joshua was building something even more important.
Something that would help fathers and sons, fathers and daughters (sometimes) build something together, spending hours in the basement, or living room, adding more tracks and stations. Adding memories.
Maybe that's why we love trains so much. They remind us of things. They play with our imagination.
So tonight keep the club car open a little longer.
Invite Cowen. He'd be great company. Would have some wild stories to tell, like when he invented the electric doorbell. Who else would you have? You might relax the smoking rules. Twain liked a good pipe.
Have some canapés and keep the champagne cocktails flowing.