COOPERMADE: Lionel Model Trains

lionel trains

While walking through midtown New York City during the late 19th century, Joshua Lionel Cowen ENG’1875 was struck by the static quality of window displays: wouldn’t a dynamic element attract more passersby?  

Cowen, who had already invented a battery-operated fuse used to ignite a camera’s flash, had been hired by the United States Navy to create a detonator for mines. He then invented the flashlight and, by his account, designed the first electric doorbell. However, it was that observation of New York shop windows that really launched Cowen’s career.  

The inventor went back to his studio and began designing what would become a rudimentary model train set that he marketed as an enhancement to commercial displays. He soon discovered that the sets were selling not as marketing devices, but as toys. Cowen launched what was to become an icon of the American toy industry, Lionel Model Trains, still a standard bearer among hobbyists.   


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