Joshua Lionel Cowen was an American inventor and the cofounder of Lionel Corporation, a manufacturer of model railroads and toy trains.Cowen also invented the flash-lamp in 1899, an early photographer's flash light source.
Joshua Lionel Cowen was born in New York City’s Lower East Side, the eighth of nine children. His Jewish immigrant parents were Hymen Nathan Cohen, a hatmaker, and Rebecca Kantrowitz. Cowen had built his first toy train at age 7,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.
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.
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.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.His trains continue to sell today.
He legally changed the spelling of his last name in 1910.
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.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.
Cowen retired in 1959, selling his 55,000 shares of Lionel stock to his great-nephew Roy Cohn.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.