Science, Inventions, Medicine, and Aerospace

Inventions and Patents

Who invented a manual coupler for railroad cars?

On November 23, 1897, Andrew Jackson Beard (1849–1941), of Alabama, was the first black to patent a coupling device for railroad cars, called the Janney (sometimes misspelled “Jenny”) Coupler. The coupler consisted of a knuckle joined to the end of a drawbar that fastened to a mechanism on the car. The knuckled end was also designed to prevent moving cars from derailing on curved track. To engage the coupler, it was necessary for a railroader to stand between the cars and drop a pin in place when the cars came together. This was a dangerous maneuver because misalignment in the knuckles when the cars came together could lead to the loss of an arm, hand, or even death. Although coupler devices were among the most popular subjects for patents—there were some 6,500 patents by 1897—Beard was able to sell his invention for some $50,000. Beard’s invention was adopted nationally in 1916; his work was so impressive that he was elected an honorary member of the Master Car Builders Association. Beard’s invention made him Alabama’s first black millionaire. He was a prolific inventor, receiving patents for such items as a plow and a steam engine. Beard was born a slave in Mount Pinson (now Pinson) in Jefferson County, Alabama, and was freed at age fifteen. He never learned to read or write, or to recognize his name in print. After marrying, he became a farmer near Birmingham. He built a school on his farm for his tenants, and he later built a flour mill near Hardwick. After he became a millionaire, he organized Beard’s Jitney Line (a taxi service) in Birmingham and made his fleet one of the best that existed. Unfortunately, he was a poor financial manager who, with failing health in later years, ruined his own career.


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