Black in the Day…Revolutionized Railroad Safety
November 23, 1897:
On this day Andrew J. Beard received a patent for the first automatic railroad car coupler thereby revolutionizing railroad safety.
Andrew Jackson Beard (1849–1921) was an African American inventor. He invented the first automatic railroad car coupler in 1897, and was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio in 2006 for this achievement.
Born in 1849, Andrew Beard spent the first fifteen years of his life as a slave on a small farm in Eastlake, Alabama. A year after he was emancipated, he got married and became a farmer in Pinson, a city just outside Birmingham..
Despite his lack of formal education, was successful in several ventures. In 1872, after working in a flour mill in Hardwicks, Alabama, Beard built his own flour mill, which he operated successfully for many years. In 1881, he patented a new plow design, which he later sold in 1884 for $4000. After the sale of his first patent, Beard returned to farming. In 1887, he patented a second design plow design, which he sold for $5,200, and invested his earnings into real estate.
Following his stint in real-estate, Andrew Beard began to work with and study engines. In 1882, Beard also patented a design for a new rotary steam engine. In 1890 and 1892, while living in Woodlawn, Beard patented two improvements to the knuckle coupler, (invented by Eli H. Janney in 1873 – U.S. Patent 138,405). Beard’s patents were U.S. Patent 594,059, granted on 23 November 1897 and U.S. Patent 624,901 granted 16 May 1899. The former was sold for $50,000 in 1897, the equivalent of almost $1.5 million in current funds.
Beard’s railroad car coupler included two horizontal jaws, which automatically locked together upon joining. Prior to Beard’s coupler, railroad cars in the US were joined together by a large metal pin, which railway workers had to drop into place as the cars came together; miscalculations by workers coupling train cars together often led to serious injuries, including crushed fingers, hands, and arms. Beard’s coupler was the first automatic coupler widely used in the US. In 1887, the same year Beard’s first automatic coupler was patented, the US Congress passed the Federal Safety Appliance Act, which made it illegal to operate any railroad car without automatic couplers.
Little is known about the period of time from Beard’s last patent application in 1897 up until his death.