Joshua L. Cowen's family arrived in New
York shortly after the Civil War.
Conrad Hubert immigrated to America in
1890 to avoid being persecuted as a Jew in his native Russia.
In 1898, the two met and became
friends. Joshua was an inventor running a business. Conrad was
particularly interested in one of Joshua's inventions, an "electric
flowerpot," and Joshua let his friend have it for practically free.
Joshua was more interested in inventing than in running a business
Conrad redesigned the electric
flowerpot by placing the battery and bulb inside a tube, and called
it an "electric hand torch." Field and Stream magazine later renamed
it as the flashlight.
While Conrad went on to amass an $8
million fortune, 22-year-old Joshua founded another company in 1900
in a small, third-floor loft in Manhattan. He didn't mind that he
had sold his electric flowerpot for so little, as he was now doing
what he really enjoyed -- inventing.
By 1953, Joshua's company had become
the largest toymaker in the world, although it has since declined.
Joshua had named the company after himself, but that doesn't tell
you much because he named it after his middle name.
He wasn't the first to invent this type
of product, but he was the first to use electricity to run it, as
electricity was still rare in American homes in the early 1900s. The
product, whose origin probably began when Joshua whittled a
miniature wooden model of it at age 7, was originally designed as a
window display for stores. When Joshua noticed that people wanted to
buy the display item, he decided to make them available for sale.
[to top of
second column in this article]
You might not recognize the name of
Joshua Lionel Cowen, even though his invention has bonded fathers
and sons for more than 100 years, but I know you've heard of the
Lionel Manufacturing Company, which has sold more than 50 million
trains since it began more than a century ago.
So the story about a man who basically
gave away a product that led to another man's fortune has a happy
ending of its own.
Lionel's earliest trains were powered
by batteries. Who did he buy his batteries from?
I don't know the answer to that one,
but I'd like to think that he bought them from the company run by
his friend, Conrad Hubert. The name of the company?
Today, Eveready / Energizer is the
world's largest manufacturer of batteries and flashlights. It is
headquartered in St. Louis and has more than 10,000 employees in 140
interesting how these things work out, isn't it?
Invention Mysteries is written each
week by Paul Niemann, who can be reached at
Paul Niemann 2004
Last week's column in LDN:
"The Roman engineer had little hope for future inventions"