Joshua Lionel Cowen was an inventive guy and had always been very interested in trains. When he was seven, he whittled a miniature locomotive from wood. It exploded, however, when he tried to fit it with a tiny steam engine. Joshua had never forgotten his childhood experiment. In 1901, he fitted a small motor under a model of a railroad flatcar, a battery and 30 inches of track and the Lionel electric train was born.
Joshua was born on Henry St. in Manhattan’s Lower East Side on August 25, 1877. He preferred playing ball, bicycling, hiking and tinkering with mechanical toys to formal education, and soon became fascinated with electricity, its transmission and its storage in batteries.
Cowen designed his first train, the Electric Express, not as a toy, but as an eye-catching display for toy stores. During Lionel's early days, Americans were captivated by the railroads and awed by electricity, still a rarity in many homes.
Cowen and Grants first customer was Ingersoll, the owner of the shop where Cowen saw the push train. Their first product was a large but simple, open gondola, called the "Electric Express", propelled by the previous fan motor. The track was merely two steel strips inserted into slotted ties with a 2 7/8 inch width between the rails, and was powered by a battery. Lionel's first trains were powered by a battery, soon replaced by the 110-volt electric transformer. Customers became curious about the Electric Express and, eventually, twelve of the showpieces Lionel trains were sold.
In June 1902 they decided to add something more interesting to the line with a "City Hall Park" trolley and a two foot suspension bridge. In 1903 they brought out an electric B & O locomotive and a motorized derrick car, and the original gondola was changed from wood to metal.
Several changes occurred in 1904. Cowen married Cecelia Liberman, the Lionel workshop was moved nine blocks to the north, and Cowen hired an Italian Immigrant, Mario Caruso. In future years it would be Caruso who did the dirtier job of keeping the factory running smoothly while Cowen managed sales.
In 1906 a great change took place in the line. In that year Lionel added a third rail which carried the current and the outer rails, which were the ground rails, were only 2 1/8 inches apart. This was the system adopted by most other manufacturers. They were rigidly pre-assembled. Three trolleys, two steam engines, two passenger cars, seven freight cars and a wall transformer were offered. Cowen's son, Lawrence, was born in 1907, and became the company's emblem on boxes and in catalogs and was later to become its President.
Lionel trains proved to be very popular, and before long Joshua Cowen was manufacturing cattle cars, coal cars, passenger cars, train stations, and tunnels. By 1909 Cowen was calling his trains "The Standard of the World." As more and more American homes were wired for electrical power, Lionel really took off. No toy benefited more from electricity than trains. It was 1910. Electric trains had become a big business.