Andrew Jackson Beard, an African-American inventor, spent the first 15 years of his life as an enslaved person on a small farm in Alabama. He became a farmer in a small town outside of Birmingham after gaining his freedom.
Aside from farming, he possessed a variety of skills. He was a blacksmith, a railroad worker, a carpenter, a businessman, and an inventor. He married soon after gaining his freedom.
Beard had no formal education and relied on his talent for inventing new things to make his life easier. According to myblackhistory.net, he invented the plow during his time in Birmingham. In 1881, he patented the plow and later sold the patent rights for $4000 in 1884. In 1887, he patented a second plow and sold it for $5,200. He used the proceeds from the sale of his inventions to start a real estate business. He earned around $10,000 from the two inventions he traded.
Beard began studying engines after working in the real estate industry for several years. In 1892, he improved the rotary steam engine and applied for a patent on it. Not only that, but he also patented the Jenny Coupler, an improved version of the railroad car coupler.
After losing a leg in a horrific car coupling accident, Beard set out to improve the Jenny Coupler. To connect railroad cars at the time, a rail worker would have to risk being between two cars and then drop a pin precisely at the right moment. Beard’s invention “eliminated human involvement between the cars by engaging horizontal jaws that automatically locked together when two cars collided,” according to the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
Many lives and limbs were saved as a result of his invention. For the patent rights, he received $50,000. He received a further boost to his invention when Congress passed the Federal Safety Appliance Act, which made it illegal to operate railroad cars without automatic couplers.
Beard’s invention is frequently confused with that of Eli H. Janney, a former Confederate Major who received a patent for his work in 1873. “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 twentieth century,” according to Myblackhistory.net.
For his work on railroad coupler design, the African-American inventor was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2006.
In 1921, Beard passed away.