Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Gilbert and Lionel on Radio, Pt. 2

Originally published in the January, 2009, Old Radio Times.(http://www.otrr.org/pg07_times.htm)

Gilbert and Lionel on Radio
Jack French © 2009

Some of the success of Gilbert’s company (as well as that of Lionel Trains) was due to the emergence of the American toy business in World War I. Prior to that international conflict, the U.S. imported most of its toys from Germany and England. The war disrupted the European toy industry, enabling Gilbert and Cowen to greatly increase their market share while the war efforts shackled their foreign competitors across the Atlantic.

Joshua Lionel Cohen (1877 -1965), a son of Jewish immigrants, grew up in Manhattan and was a tinker and inventor before his teens. He made toys of his own, improved on ones he found, and nearly blew up his mother’s kitchen while trying to ignite a tiny steam engine motor for a wooden train he had put together. A bright lad, he entered Columbia University at age 16 to study engineering, but dropped out to work on small appliances at the Acme Electric Lamp Company. There a fuse he invented for flash photography impressed the U.S. Navy who had him produce similar fuses to ignite mines. Cohen made $12,000 on that Navy contract, a very sizable sum in those days, and shortly thereafter changed his Jewish surname from “Cohen” to a neutral “Cowen.” He invented the first practical flashlight, but grew impatient over patent suits so he gave the rights to his partner, Conrad Hubert, who used it to found the EverReady Flashlight Company (and make millions.)

Cowen’s subsequent inventions included a small fan, powered by a battery. The device had little commercial appeal until he hit upon the idea of using its battery-motor to propel a toy electric train. His small firm, which bore his middle name, greatly improved the toy train. Instead of wires connected to a battery, Lionel electrified the tiny railroad tracks with a transformer that started and stopped the train. Cowen insisted on complete authenticity in all his engines and cars, including the correct color of paint and the number of rivets in the siding. Cowen sold his first toy train in 1901 and within a year, his line was the most popular toy train sold in the U.S. By the 1920s, no department store could fail to have a gigantic Christmas display involving an elaborate toy train setup, with several Lionel trains chugging around it.

In late 1933, NBC began airing two juvenile adventure programs, each 15 minutes long and sponsored by these two prominent toy companies. Both of these series were produced in Manhattan at Station WJZ.


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