Faces of Black Excellence

Remembering Andrew J. Beard, who rose from slavery to become inventor of the railroad coupler that saved lives

African-American inventor Andrew Jackson Beard spent the first 15 years of his life as an enslaved person on a small farm in Alabama. When he gained his freedom, he became a farmer in a small city outside of Birmingham.

He had multiple skills aside from farming. He was a blacksmith, railroad worker, carpenter, businessman and inventor as well. He married shortly after he gained his freedom.

Beard had no basic education but relied on his penchant for developing new things to make life around him easier. It was during his stay in Birmingham that he invented a plow, according to myblackhistory.net. He patented the plow in 1881 and sold the patent rights later for $4000 in 1884. He patented a second plow and sold it for $5,200 in 1887. He ventured into the real estate business from the proceeds of the inventions he had sold. He made an estimated $10,000 from the two inventions he traded.

Following some years spent in the real estate industry, Beard shifted his attention to studying engines. He improved the rotary steam engine and applied for a patent for it in 1892. That was not all; he also patented an improved version of the railroad car coupler known as the Jenny Coupler.

Beard sought to improve the Jenny Coupler after he lost a leg in a ghastly car coupling accident. To hook railroad cars together at the time, a rail worker would have to take the risk of being between two cars and then drop a pin exactly at the right moment. Beard’s invention “eliminated human involvement between the cars by engaging horizontal jaws that automatically locked together when two cars bumped into each other,” according to the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

His invention saved many lives and limbs. He earned $50,000 for the patent rights. He got a further boost to his invention when Congress passed the Federal Safety Appliance Act that made it illegal to run railroad cars that did not have automatic couplers fixed to them.

Beard’s invention is often mistaken for the automatic railroad coupler by Eli H. Janney, a former Confederate Major who acquired a patent for his work in 1873. Myblackhistory.net writes that “Beard’s patent relating to the automatic coupler was one of some 8,000 variant patents awarded between Janney’s invention in 1873 and the turn of the 20th century.”

The African-American inventor was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2006 for his work on railroad coupler design.

Beard passed away in 1921.

Stephen Nartey

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