Joshua Lionel Cowen

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Joshua Lionel Cowen
Joshua Lionel Cowen.jpg
Born August 25, 1877[1]
New York City, New York, United States
Died September 8, 1965(1965-09-08) (aged 88)[1]
Palm Beach, Florida, United States
Nationality United States
Occupation Engineer
Engineering career
Projects Lionel Corporation

Joshua Lionel Cowen (/ˈkən/; August 25, 1877 – September 8, 1965) was an American inventor and the co founder of Lionel Corporation, a manufacturer of model railroads and toy trains.[1] Cowen also invented the flash-lamp in 1899, an early photographer's flash light source.[2]


Joshua Lionel Cowen was born in New York City’s Lower East Side,[3] the eighth of nine children. His Jewish immigrant parents were Hyman Nathan Cohen, a hatmaker, and Rebecca Kantrowitz. Cowen built his first toy train at age 7,[1] attaching a small motor under a model of a railroad flatcar. He studied at Columbia University, Cooper Union and the City College of New York but did not complete his degrees.[4]

Marketing and business career[edit]

He received his first patent in 1899, for a device that ignited a photographer's flash. The same year, Cowen received a defense contract from the United States Navy to produce mine fuses that netted him $12,000. The following year, Cowen and one of his partners founded Lionel Corporation in New York City.[5]

Cowen sold his first electric train in 1901 to a store owner in Manhattan, intending to use the train to call attention to other merchandise.[1] The store owner returned the next day to order six more trains, because customers wanted to buy the store display. By 1902, Lionel was primarily a toy train manufacturer. He started his company, the Lionel Corporation.[1][5] His trains continue to sell today.

He legally changed the spelling of his last name in 1910.[6]

Cowen's marketing skills ultimately made him more money than his talents at invention. The tradition linking toy trains to Christmas originated in Germany in the mid-19th century. It was expanded by Cowen, who in the 1920s convinced the owners of large department stores to incorporate elaborate train setups, which he provided, around their large Christmas tree displays, hoping to increase demand among small boys for toy trains as Christmas gifts.[7] Lionel was soon the largest of three American toy train manufacturers, and for a short time in the early 1950s, Lionel was the largest toy manufacturer in the world. However, by the mid-1950s, public interest had shifted from trains to airplanes and slot cars.[1][5]

Cowen retired in 1959, selling his 55,000 shares of Lionel stock to his great-nephew Roy Cohn.[1] He died September 8, 1965 in Palm Beach, Florida. He is buried in Union Field Cemetery, a Jewish cemetery maintained for the Congregation of Rodeph Shalom in Brooklyn, New York.


1893 entered the College of the City of New York

1896 joins Henner & Anderson, an early dry cell battery manufacturer

1897 he took a job at the Acme Lamp Company in New York as a battery lamp assembler

1899 Cowen received his first patent for a device that ignited a photographer's flash

1899 Cowen received a defense contract from the United States Navy to produce mine fuses

1900 Cowen and Harry C. Grant founded Lionel Manufacturing Company in New York City

1900 he filed his second patent which improved on the first design of his flash igniter

1901 Lionel Manufacturing Company begins selling electric fans, battery operated with a small motor

1901 Cowen developed the first Lionel train—a battery-powered “Electric Express.”

1904 Cowen married Cecelia Liberman

1909 Cowen was calling his model trains "The Standard of the World."

1910 Joshua changes his last name from Cohen to Cowen

1915 O-Gauge was introduced, which eventually became the most popular scale of train

1918 Lionel Manufacturing Company renamed Lionel Corporation

1947 In an interview with The New Yorker magazine, Cowen claims he invented the flashlight

1953 Lionel became was the largest toy manufacturer in the world

1959 Joshua sold all of his stock to his nephew, the infamous attorney, Roy Cohn

1959 Retired from Lionel Corporation

1999 Lionel trains were selected as one of the top 10 toys of the 20th century

2007 Lionel was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame