Andrew Jackson Beard lived an extraordinary life for a black American inventor. His invention of the Jenny automatic car coupler revolutionized railroad safety. Unlike the vast majority of inventors who never profit from their patents, he profited from his inventions.
Life of Andrew Beard - From Slave to Inventor
Andrew Beard was born a slave on a plantation in Woodland, Alabama, in 1849, shortly before slavery ended. He received emancipation at age 15 and he married at age 16. Andrew Beard was a farmer, carpenter, blacksmith, a railroad worker, a businessman and finally an inventor.
Plow Patents Bring Success
He grew apples as a farmer near Birmingham, Alabama for five years before he built and operated a flour mill in Hardwick, Alabama. His work in agriculture led to tinkering with improvement for plows. In 1881, he patented his first invention, an improvement to the double plow, and sold the patent rights for $4,000 in 1884. His design allowed for the distance between the plow plates to be adjusted. That amount of money would be the equivalent of almost $100,000 today. His patent is US240642, filed on September 4, 1880, at which time he listed his residence at Easonville, Alabama, and published on April 26, 1881.
In 1887, Andrew Beard patented a second plow and sold it for $5,200. This patent was for a design that allowed the pitch of the blades of plows or cultivators to be adjusted. The amount he received would be the equivalent of about $130,000 today. This patent is US347220, filed on May 17, 1886, at which time he listed his residence as Woodlawn, Alabama, and published on August 10, 1996. Beard invested the money he made from his plow inventions into a profitable real-estate business.
Rotary Engine Patents
Beard received two patents for rotary steam engine designs. US433847 was filed and granted in 1890. He also received patent US478271 in 1892. There was no information found as to whether these were profitable for him.
Beard Invents the Jenny Coupler for Railroad Cars
In 1897, Andrew Beard patented an improvement to railroad car couplers. His improvement came to be called the Jenny Coupler. It was one of many that aimed to improve the knuckle coupler patented by Eli Janney in 1873 (patent US138405).
The knuckle coupler did the dangerous job of hooking railroad cars together, which formerly was done by manually placing a pin in a link between the two cars. Beard, himself had lost a leg in a car coupling accident. As an ex-railroad worker, Andrew Beard had the right idea that probably saved countless lives and limbs.
Beard received three patents for automatic car couplers. These are US594059 granted November 23, 1897, US624901 granted May 16, 1899, and US807430 granted on May 16, 1904. He lists his residence as Eastlake, Alabama for the first two and Mount Pinson, Alabama for the third.
While there were thousands of patents filed at the time for car couplers, Andrew Beard received $50,000 for the patent rights to his Jenny Coupler. This would be just shy of 1.5 million dollars today. Congress enacted the Federal Safety Appliance Act at that time to enforce using automatic couplers.
View the complete patent drawings for Beard's inventions. Andrew Jackson Beard was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2006 in recognition of his revolutionary Jenny Coupler. He died in 1921.