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"The little-known stories behind well-known inventions"

The inventor didn't regret missing out on an $8 million fortune          By Paul Niemann

(Text copied from file received)

[JAN. 18, 2007]  Sometimes two people cross paths and it changes history. Sometimes a business deal works out well for one person but not the other.

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 anyway.

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 re-named 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 1900's. 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.

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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?

Eveready Battery.

Today, Eveready / Energizer is the world's largest manufacturer of batteries and flashlights, and is headquartered in St. Louis with more than 10,000 employees in 140 countries.

Kind of interesting how these things work out, isn't it?

[Paul Niemann]

Paul Niemann may be reached at

Copyright Paul Niemann 2007

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