How Joshua Lionel Cowen Became Rich with Toys

On this day, August 25 in the year 1877, the man who invented and popularized toy trains was born in New York, United States. His name was Joshua Lionel Cowen, co-founder of Lionel Corporation which was once the largest manufacturer of toys.

Joshua Lionel Cowen
Joshua Lionel Cowen (Credit:

Joshua Lionel Cowen was the eighth of nine children of Jewish immigrants. The family was engaged in hat making business. When he was 7 years old, he built his first toy train. He went to study at Columbia University and also at the City College of New York but did not finish a degree. In 1896, he worked at a dry cell battery manufacturer and the following year, he joined the Acme Lamp Company as a lamp assembler.

In 1899, Joshua got his first patent for a device used in a photographer’s flash. He also invented a mine fuse which allowed him to gain a sales contract with the US Navy. Using the money he earned from this contract, he established Lionel Manufacturing Company the following year with Mr. Harry Grant as his partner. At first, the company manufactured electric fans but it did not sell because of the cold weather in New York.

In 1901, Joshua sold his first electric toy train to a Manhattan merchandiser. Soon, he was selling toy trains everywhere. It also added other product lines such as toy cars. In 1918, the company was renamed Lionel Corporation. Fast forward to 1953, the company became the largest toy manufacturer in the world. Then sales began to decline as customers’ interest shifted to airplanes.

Joshua Lionel Cowen sold his shares in the company to Roy Cohn, a lawyer and a distant nephew. Eventually, the company went bankrupt but the trademark Lionel persisted and passed from one company to another.

In 1965, Joshua Cowen died in Florida. He married Cecilia Liberman in 1904.



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