The Strongest Handshake In The World
Every day thousands of long trains lumber across North America. They come and go unnoticed by most of us, but even more unnoticed is what holds them together. It is a clawlike device, a huge steel hand. Two hands, or couplers, grip each other to connect the cars, and they join and unjoin quickly so that cars can easily be picked up or dropped off. They are technical marvels whose basic design was introduced more than 130 years ago by a dry goods clerk who had no training in engineering or mechanics. He was a true amateur inventor. And they entered general use—preventing thousands of disabling injuries a year—because of long, tireless effort by one other devoted man.
Eli H. Janney, the inventor, was born into a modest farming family in Loudoun County, Virginia, near Washington, in 1831. He studied briefly at a seminary but returned to farm until the beginning of the Civil War. He served in the Confederate Army as a field quartermaster and rose to the rank of major. He was too poor to resume farming after the war and so became a clerk in a dry goods store near Alexandria, Virginia. Business was slow in the defeated South, and he spent a lot of time whittling. He also read or heard about local trainmen who were injured by the dangerous link-and-pin car couplers then in universal use. Railroad workers had to step between cars to insert a pin into either end of the link that connected them. Uncoupling meant standing between the cars to remove one or both pins, and all while the cars were being shifted to make up or break up a train. That fingers or hands were often crushed was hardly a surprise. Many alternatives had been patented, but railroad managers remained loyal to what was simple and, best of all, cheap. To re-equip the thousands of cars in service would cost a fortune. Finding replacement trainmen cost less.
Even so, amateur inventors continued to try to design the device that would end the carnage. In April 1868 Janney received his first patent for a coupler. It was a failure like hundreds of others. Then one day he hooked his fingers together, one thumb up, one down. Opening either set of fingers disconnected the coupling. His penknife soon created a working model, and having no skills as a mechanic or an artist, he had it translated into a drawing by a draftsman. A written description followed, and on April 29, 1873, the former soldier was issued a second car-coupler patent. He persuaded a few friends to finance the manufacture of four couplers for testing on a local short line. They worked well enough, but railroad officials, who were wary of eager inventors and their inspirations, told their staffs to turn away all comers.
However, one manager, J. D. Laing, of the Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne and Chicago Railway, was willing to listen to Janney. He even conducted a test of the new coupler, in 1874. The results were so good that the Fort Wayne line adopted Janney’s invention and within four years refitted 152 cars, all of them passenger cars. The Fort Wayne’s 5,000 freight cars would keep their loose and rattling link-and-pin connectors. The Fort Wayne’s parent line, the mighty Pennsylvania Railroad, adopted the coupler for its passenger cars in 1876. The Standard Railroad of the World, as the Pennsylvania none too modestly styled itself, operated 13,697 freight cars, but they too continued to use link-and-pins.
Passenger cars were rarely interchanged between connecting railroads, so for them compatibility was not an issue. The same was not true for freight cars; they were regularly exchanged so that shipments need not be loaded and unloaded as they moved from one line to the next. Some railroads had adopted Ezra Miller’s 1863 patented semi-automatic coupler for their passenger cars, but it was unwieldy and expensive. The Pennsylvania was not willing to pay Miller’s hefty $100 per car licensing fee, and it took on Janney’s apparatus as a less costly substitute.
It would be another quartercentury before a real large-scale conversion took place, and it would be a long and bumpy ride for everyone involved. In fact, nothing was at all certain in the late 1870s about the future of the railroad coupler. Janney searched for a manufacturer to produce and market his invention, but local foundries in northern Virginia couldn’t do sophisticated enough castings, so he looked to Pittsburgh, where he found William McConway.
To McConway and John J. Torley, his partner at the Eagle Gray Iron Foundry, Janney was just another car-coupler patentee, one of more than 900 by 1875, but the two were ready to take a gamble. In 1877 or 1878 they agreed to develop Janney’s invention, and they paid him enough to buy a farm back in Virginia.
By 1887 there were more than 4,000 coupler patents; by 1930, about 12,000. Many were serviceable and well-planned devices. Some were bizarre, weird, or just plain goofy. But the Patent Office made few judgments; if the plan didn’t copy something already in use or an idea already patented, the inventor would likely receive his papers. The marketplace would decide whether it was practical or economic. One patent in 1875 used a double-tipped spear that would have looked more at home on a whaling ship. Another seems well suited for medieval warfare. William Emmett of Logansport, Indiana, came up with a large screw and a turnip-shaped head that looks like a Star Wars monster. The overabundance of choices actually slowed the adoption of any type of automatic, or rather semi-automatic, coupler because the task was so big. Railroad-car superintendents tended to shelve the matter and look for less taxing chores.
The mid-level managers who oversaw the design, purchase, and repair of the nation’s railroad car fleet formed a society in 1867 called the Master Car Builders Association. Under pressure to expand their fleets on limited budgets, they tended to buy cheap cars without expensive equipment such as air brakes and safety couplers. At meetings of their new organization the vexing question of couplers was raised and routinely tabled year after year. Finally, in 1885, the group began to study the question in earnest. A selection of the better patented designs, including the Janney coupler, were tested, and in 1887 the MCB Association agreed to adopt the Janney-style coupler as its new standard. But the resolution was only an expression of good intentions, for it was a recommendation, not a requirement. A few railroads began to voluntarily install safety couplers on freight trains, but the number remained comparatively small.
In 1888 McConway and Torley agreed to waive two parts of one of Janney’s patents to allow other manufacturers to make couplers that would work with the design without buying from a single supplier or paying license fees. But even this concession did little to encourage a large-scale or rapid conversion to the new form. By 1888 less than a tenth of the nation’s nearly one million freight cars had been equipped with safety couplers. Apparently everybody was waiting for everyone else to act. Few seemed ready to devote much of their budget to the reform or demand greater funding from bosses who personally didn’t care to be bothered with such requests.
With the railroad industry not responding, reformers turned to government for help. Connecticut, Massachusetts, and a few other states passed coupler laws in the 1880s, but none were effective. Federal authorities also failed to move. The railroad brotherhoods were surprisingly passive about the issue, and management remained opposed, in as nonpublic a way as possible.
Then one man set out to do what the society couldn’t do collectively. Lorenzo S. Coffin was a farmer, part-time preacher (he had been a Union chaplain during the Civil War), and sometimes railroad right-of-way agent. He was born in 1823 in rural New Hampshire and inherited a zeal for good works from his minister father. He studied at Oberlin College, in Ohio, a school already famous for its liberal attitude toward women and blacks, and settled in Iowa in 1855. He eventually got work as a land agent for a local railroad, and his generous, congenial, and down-to-earth manner made him an effective negotiator with farmers in the area.
One day while riding in a caboose in pursuit of business, he witnessed a sickening accident. The rear brakeman on the train had his hand crushed while attempting to couple two cars. Coffin talked to other railroad men and was distressed to learn the scope of the problem, the great number of injuries, and the indifference in the industry. Brakemen told him it was easy to spot a fellow trainman at a distance because he usually was missing a few fingers. The part-time minister, with no organization to back him and no funding, grew determined to do something, his paternal instincts aroused to protect “his boys,” as he came to call the beleaguered trainmen.
He began to write and to visit railroad and public officials, but with no result. So he began writing newspaper articles. In them he quoted damning statistics and described tragic deaths and fearful suffering, with true tales of strong young men carried home as mangled corpses or so badly injured it would have been a blessing for them to have been killed outright. He spoke to church groups and even addressed the Master Car Builders Association and railroad brotherhoods.
In 1883 his rabble-rousing got him an appointment to the Iowa Railroad Commission. Most such bodies were sleepy organizations established more to impress the public than to better the railroad industry. But Coffin eventually succeeded in having a railroad-safety bill passed. It was but a steppingstone to a national law that would mandate safety couplers and air brakes for every freight car in interstate traffic, so he began to spend time in Washington, lobbying Congress. He encountered more indifference and opposition than support. He was told over and over that the laws he wanted would cost the railroads $25 to $30 million, about $400 million in today’s money. Railroad lobbyists told legislators that his do-gooder reforms would bankrupt the industry. Coffin, however, pricked the national conscience, and his championing of guilt and compassion began to take hold.
Then, in about 1890, he got the ear of President Benjamin Harrison. The President was one in a long line of conservative post–Civil War Republicans who naturally favored big business over labor, but he was swayed enough to break away from the party line. He went with the reformers. At last Congress passed the Safety Appliance Act, which also made air brakes mandatory. Harrison signed the bill on March 3, 1893, his last full day in office, and gave the pen he used to Coffin.
The railroads were given five years to complete the transition. Predictably, they missed the deadline by a considerable margin. By mid-1898 only 68 percent of cars had safety couplers. Congress granted an extension to January 1900; this too proved not enough, so another extension of eight months was enacted. But by 1900 coupler-related injuries dropped from 32 percent to 9 percent of all injuries. By 1902 the figure reached 4 percent. The work of Janney, Coffin, and Harrison finally paid off handsomely. The railroad workers of America owed much to them.
Coffin went on to new crusades, Harrison died as a political has-been in 1901, and Janney puttered around his Virginia farm. He remained active in coupler design until in 1910 his health declined. He died in 1912. Janney had made no great fortune from his patent, but he was paid richly in lives and limbs preserved.