March 15, 2018


The Man Who Played With Trains (William Bryk, 3/12/18, Splice)

In 1965, The New York Times wrote that Joshua Lionel Cowen had made the Lionel name "the third wing of Christmas, along with the evergreen tree and Santa Claus." Even now, for many of us, a Christmas tree, however laden with colored lights, however lavishly tinseled, seems incomplete without an 027 model train running beneath it on a circle of steel track.

Once, American railroads dominated popular culture because they were the only means of fast land transportation. Now there are other ways to get there from here. They seem less important, and toy trains share the marginalization of their prototypes. Yet millions of us played with toy trains half a century ago, particularly those manufactured by the Lionel Corporation. For perhaps a decade after World War II, the technical, managerial, and promotional genius of Joshua Lionel Cowen, founder of Lionel, made his toy trains a solid part of American middle-class boyhood.

In 1952 alone, Lionel produced 622,209 engines and 2,460,764 freight and passenger cars. Ron Hollander's delightful, lavishly-illustrated biography of Cowen and his company, All Aboard (published in 1981 and reissued in 2000), states that Lionel's 1952 production eclipsed "the nation's railroads, which had a mere 43,000 locomotives and 1.8 million cars in service."

Joshua Lionel Cowen was born on Henry St. in Manhattan's Lower East Side on Aug. 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. In the labs at Peter Cooper Institute, he built what may have been (or what he claimed was--Cowen had no false modesty) the first electric doorbell. 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 didn't 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." He delivered the fuses to the Brooklyn Navy Yard on time by horse-drawn wagon at the gallop.

In 1900, with $12,000 in profits, he began manufacturing "electrical novelties" at 24 Murray St. in Lower Manhattan as the Lionel Manufacturing Co. He was 23. 

Posted by at March 15, 2018 4:24 AM