Railroad History

Its all about the rails


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Andrew Jackson Beard

Andrew Jackson Beard (1849-1921) was a prominent African American entrepreneur who rose from slavery to become an inventor in the 1880s and 1890s. Largely self-educated, he invented, among other things, a specially designed the double plow, a type of rotary steam engine, and a device for the automated coupling of railroad cars. The "Jenny Coupler" has been credited with saving countless railroad workers from mutilation and death. He also founded several successful businesses in Jefferson County, including a real estate firm and a taxi company.

Born into slavery in Woodland, Alabama, Andrew Beard worked on a plantation as a slave until emancipation in 1865. Then, at the age of 15, he began work as a farm laborer, marrying at 16 and, in 1870, becoming a millwright. He combined his experiences farming with those of his work in the mill and began to improve upon the design of the plows available in the area. He bought and sold land as a sideline, earning a profit of $30,000, which enabled him to devote time to his inventions. He patented a new type of plow, which he sold in 1884 for $4,000. Further patents for the same technology were also sold and he moved on to pursue other inventions. In 1889, he designed a rotary engine, which cost significantly less than other steam engines to build and operate.

Later in life, Beard went to work for the railroads. While following this occupation he lost a leg trying to couple cars manually. As a result of this experience, he developed an improved means of automatically coupling rail cars, which he called the Jenny Coupler. He patented this coupler, by which two horizontal jaws engage when cars are pushed into each other, in 1897. He sold the patent to this device for $50,000 and revolutionized the railroad industry.