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Geek Trivia: The accidental genius

What electrical hobby did Joshua L. Cowen accidentally invent?

Anyone who's ever used a portable battery-powered light owes a small debt to Joshua L. Cowen, the late 19th- and early 20th-century inventor who almost invented the flashlight. Cowen sold (for almost nothing) his American Eveready Battery Company and its portable light technology to friend Conrad Hubert in 1898, well before anyone thought up something as simple and obvious as a portable "hand torch."

Cowen originally conceived a self-illuminating flowerpot powered by a dry cell battery that gardeners could use to display prize blooms, but this rather bizarre device never really caught the public's eye. It was Hubert who simplified Cowen's design, tossing aside the flowerpot and selling the portable electric light as a novelty item, which made Hubert a millionaire.

But this brush with inventive success was neither the first nor the last such "almost" invention for Cowen.

Cowen's first major foray into invention occurred in the late 1890s with his attempt to design a fuse that could reliably ignite magnesium photography flashes—something most conventional fuses could not handle if they absorbed too much ambient moisture. Cowen's fuses were almost totally waterproof, but they were a total failure in the photography market.

Fortunately, Cowen had accidentally invented an ideal fuse for igniting underwater explosives, and the U.S. Navy purchased 24,000 of them in 1898, the same year Cowen sold Eveready and its lighted flowerpots to Hubert.

While Cowen's design genius and total lack of market savvy might lead one to conclude that he never truly met with business success, nothing could be further from the truth. In 1901, Cowen once again accidentally invented one of the most successful consumer devices in American history, one that made him even more money than Hubert earned with the flashlight and that launched a hobby industry that continues to this day.


What electrical hobby did late 19th- and early 20th-century inventor Joshua L. Cowen accidentally create, cashing in on the success that he missed when he sold the American Eveready Battery Company just a few years earlier?

The answer lies in Cowen's middle name. Joshua Lionel Cowen is the inventor of the toy electric train and the namesake of perhaps the most famous model train company in the world: Lionel. But once again, it was all a lucky accident.

Ever the electrician, Cowen devised a crude electric train set as a means of animating department store window displays. Cowen believed the train would serve as an attention grabber for the other items in the store window, but it turned out that shoppers were far more enamored with—and willing to buy—the train itself.

Cowen had once again stumbled on a potential goldmine, and this time he wasn't going to miss out on the opportunity. In 1900, Cowen founded the Lionel Manufacturing Company, which soon began producing catalogs of toy electrical trains for consumer purchase.

Unlike his other business blunders, Cowen's quirky sales ideas actually benefited the Lionel cause. Cowen sold Lionel trains as "mature" toys that could prepare young boys for industrialized adulthood, entertain fathers fascinated with electrical devices, and serve as a shared bonding activity between the two groups.

Cowen also pioneered the use of electric trains in Christmas displays, forever linking the image of a Christmas tree and a tiny locomotive circling its base. He even went so far as to forge celebrity endorsement deals and create Lionel-centered television and radio shows.

These gimmicks led to incredible popularity and profit for Lionel and Cowen alike until the late 1950s, when interest in model trains began to decline. Cowen sold controlling interest in the company in 1959 to a distant relative who would make his own mark on the cultural landscape—illustrious "Red Scare" lawyer Roy Cohn.

Quibble of the Week
With the triumphant return of all-new Geek Trivia and the impending development of a Geek Central area on TechRepublic, we're debuting the first of several new TechRepublic features: The Quibble of the Week. It's a chance for trivia fanatics to do what you do best—argue about minute details and unusual facts that no one would otherwise ever care about.

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week's Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from our assembled masses and discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia.

About Jay Garmon

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

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