|Joshua Lionel Cowen was an inventive guy and had always been very interested in trains. When he was seven,
he whittled a miniature locomotive from wood. It exploded, however, when he tried to fit it with a tiny steam
engine. Joshua had never forgotten his childhood experiment. In 1901, he fitted a small motor under a model of a
railroad flatcar, a battery and 30 inches of track and the Lionel electric train was born.
Joshua was born on Henry St. in Manhattan’s Lower East Side on August 25, 1877. He preferred playing ball,
bicycling, hiking and tinkering with mechanical toys to formal education, and soon became fascinated with
electricity, its transmission and its storage in batteries.
Cowen did so well in school that in 1893 he entered the College of the City of New York. But, he could not adjust
to the confines of a formal education. In short order he dropped out, returned, again dropped out, enrolled at
Columbia University, and dropped out there to become an apprentice to Henner & Anderson, an early dry cell
battery manufacturer. Then he took a job at the Acme Lamp Company in New York as a battery lamp assembler.
During his spare time he liked experimenting, one of many mechanically inclined young men who liked to
tinker with things. These jobs gave Cowen the experience he needed to launch Lionel.
In 1899, he patented a device for igniting photographers’ flash powder by using dry cell batteries to heat a wire
fuse. Cowen than parlayed this into a defense contract to equip 24,000 Navy mines with detonators. His
ignorance of armament manufacture did not stop him. He used mercuric fulminate, a sensitive and powerful
explosive (his supplier’s deliveryman told him, "The company said you should always keep a good deal around.
It’s better to be dead than maimed"), and delivered the fuses to the Brooklyn Navy Yard on time by horse-drawn
wagon at a gallop. In January 1900, he filed his second patent which improved on the his first design but again
failed to give details.
On September 5, 1900, Cowen and a colleague from Acme, Harry C. Grant, started a business in lower
Manhattan called the Lionel Manufacturing Company, but they had nothing to manufacture. One hot day when
Cowen was sitting in his office waiting for a cool breeze he got the idea of an electric fan. He quickly assembled
and marketed the electric fan, but the weather soon cooled and so did public interest. Soon after, Cowen was
walking through lower Manhattan when he stopped at a toy store window where he saw, among the toys, a
push train. He then had the vision of it going around a circle of track without needing attention. This was the
vision which started a legend.
Cowen designed his first train, the Electric Express, not as a toy, but as an eye-catching display for toy stores.
During Lionel's early days, Americans were captivated by the railroads and awed by electricity, still a rarity in
Cowen and Grants first customer was Ingersoll, the owner of the shop where Cowen saw the push train. Their
first product was a large but simple, open gondola, called the "Electric Express", propelled by the previous fan
motor. The track was merely two steel strips inserted into slotted ties with a 2 7/8 inch width between the rails,
and was powered by a battery. Lionel's first trains were powered by a battery, soon replaced by the 110-volt
electric transformer. Customers became curious about the Electric Express and, eventually, twelve of the
showpieces Lionel trains were sold.
In June 1902 they decided to add something more interesting to the line with a "City Hall Park" trolley and a two
foot suspension bridge. In 1903 they brought out an electric B & O locomotive and a motorized derrick car, and
the original gondola was changed from wood to metal.
Several changes occurred in 1904. Cowen married Cecelia Liberman, the Lionel workshop was moved nine
blocks to the north, and Cowen hired an Italian Immigrant, Mario Caruso. In future years it would be Caruso
who did the dirtier job of keeping the factory running smoothly while Cowen managed sales.
In 1906 a great change took place in the line. In that year Lionel added a third rail which carried the current and
the outer rails, which were the ground rails, were only 2 1/8 inches apart. This was the system adopted by most
other manufacturers. They were rigidly pre-assembled. Three trolleys, two steam engines, two passenger cars,
seven freight cars and a wall transformer were offered. Cowen's son, Lawrence, was born in 1907, and became
the company's emblem on boxes and in catalogs and was later to become its President.
Lionel trains proved to be very popular, and before long Joshua Cowen was manufacturing cattle cars, coal cars,
passenger cars, train stations, and tunnels. By 1909 Cowen was calling his trains "The Standard of the World." As
more and more American homes were wired for electrical power, Lionel really took off. No toy benefited more
from electricity than trains. It was 1910. Electric trains had become a big business.
In 1915, O-Gauge was introduced, which eventually became the most popular scale of train. Whatever the scale,
Lionel Trains have become an active part of every child's beginning throughout the ages.
In 1929, Cowen unveiled the Transcontinental Limited, which stretched nine feet from its massive headlight to
its ornate observation platform, complete with brass rail. It cost $110–more than a used Model T. The company
was able to weather the Depression, when there was little money to spend on toys, and World War II, when
there were no metals available to build toys with. Many collectors believe the trains and accessories that Lionel
made in the two decades following World War II were the firm's best, and they focus on the products from those
An often repeated story in both book form and on the Web credits Cowan with inventing the flashlight. We
have been told the story stems from an interview printed in The New Yorker magazine in 1947. Cowen stated he
accidentally invented the flashlight in 1898, attaching small canisters containing batteries and light bulbs to a
flower pot for the purpose of illuminating the plant. The invention was a flop, and Cowen sold the rights to the
invention to Conrad Hubert, who decided to try selling the lights without the flower pot, the flashlight.
Although the story could be true, they were both in New York at the same time, Cowan had worked for both a
battery and a lamp manufacture, Hubert (having newly arrived in America from Russia) was looking for work
and at the time of the article Cowan was already rich and famous and therefore did not need to remake history.
But the only solid evidence is the New Yorker article. You can decide if the story is true.
The good times didn’t last. They never do. From 1953, Lionel’s best year, to 1959, sales dropped by more than
half. In 1958, the company lost money for the first time since the Depression. In September 1959, the Cowen
family members including Joshua sold their shares of stock to a group of businessmen led by Cowen’s great-
nephew, Roy Cohn. Cohn paid $15 for each of his Lionel shares in 1959. Four years later, he sold them for $5.25.
Lionel survives, having passed through numerous hands before falling into a group of investors including Neil
Young, the singer and songwriter.
Youthful inventor Joshua Lionel Cowen wasn't the first to manufacture toy trains and he did not lack for
competition. Carlisle & Finch Co., of Cincinnati, OH, first made electric trains in 1896 and German toy
manufacturers such as Bing and Marklin were producing electric and steam-powered toy trains. The first electric
train was exhibited at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago. The Ives Co., of Bridgeport, CT, had manufactured wind-
up trains as early as 1874. Cowen beat them because he produced a reliable product, with an expanding line of
accessories, while being an audacious promoter, selling his toys as educational because he knew parents needed
a rationalization for their purchase: His talents as an engineer and salesman soon put Lionel ahead of its
competitors. Lionel trains are unquestionably the greatest name in the history of toy trains.
|The Lionel Story
|Model Railroad History
|The MTH Story
|MTH. Perhaps the one company that US toy train enthusiasts either love or loath. The history began in 1973
when Mike Wolf was aged 12, and started assembling reproduction Lionel trains, for Jerry Williams, proprietor
of Williams Electric Trains, and now part of the Bachman empire. Within a few years, Wolf was running a mail
order business from his parents' home, supplying Williams trains and parts. Jerry Williams withdrew from that
market, and sold the tooling to Mike Wolf, who continued the production and sales of reproduction Lionel
trains. By the 1980s, Mike Wolf, trading as Mike's Train House, was trading as a Lionel sub contractor, and, by
the 90s, was the second largest mail order toy train business in the US.
It all ended in tears, in 1993, when then Lionel owner Richard Kughn terminated the agreement between MTH
and Lionel, due to competition between the two companies. MTH sued Lionel, and settlement was agreed out of
court, in 1995. MTH expanded their product line and, by 1998, were larger than Lionel in terms of market share.
The rivalry between the two companies was intense, and has not been helped by court cases which are ongoing.
MTH sued Lionel and, in 2004, were awarded damages of USD 40.8 million, although the original trial was
overturned and a new trial ordered. The saga continues
|The American Flyer Story
| American Flyer Trains, first manufactured by the American Flyer Manufacturing Co. in Chicago, IL. They
manufactured Clock Work trains and later Wide Gauge and "O" Gauge Electric Trains. In the late 1930's the
American Flyer line was bought by The A.C. Gilbert, Co. of New Haven Connecticut, headed by A.C. Gilbert the
inventor of Erector sets and many other toys. Gilbert had already begun the manufacture of an HO line of trains.
At the end of World War 2, Gilbert resumed train and toy production, but introduced a new gauge, "S" Gauge.
Scaled to 3/16 to the inch and running on two rail track.
The A.C. Gilbert, Co., acquired by The Wrather, Corp., in the early 60's, was closed in 1966. The American Flyer
name, along with all the tools and dies, were sold to the Lionel Corp.