Sunday, July 31, 2011

Alexandria Confederate Veteran Invented Modern Railroad Coupler

Eli Hamilton Janney, the inventor of the modern railroad coupler, was born in Loudoun County, Virginia on November 12, 1831.  He was descended from a prominent Quaker family that had moved to Virginia from Bucks County Pennsylvania, however he was not a practicing Quaker.  Prior to the Civil War, Janney was a small-time farmer, ran a small shop in Loudoun County and also served as the local postmaster.  When war broke out, he enlisted in the Confederate Army.  He rose to the rank of major and served as an Issuing Quartermaster on General Robert E. Lee's staff.



After being paroled in Winchester on April 22, 1865, Janney settled in Alexandria, Virginia where he worked as a clerk in a dry goods shop.  He soon started to devote spare time to developing a safer and more efficient coupler system for railroad cars to replace the dangerous link and pin couplers then in use. Although he had never been involved in the railroad industry, Janney's interest in such a device was probably influenced by the large railroad presence in Alexandria.  Alexandria had developed into a key railroad center.  In the 1850s, locomotives were manufactured and two railroads were constructed..  During the war, Alexandria was the hub of operations for the U.S. Military Railroad in Virginia including a large roundhouse and numerous workshops.    Undoubtedly, Janney saw men around town who had been injured in horrific railroad accidents and was aware of the dangers associated with coupling railroad cars.

An illustration depicting an early railroad worker performing the dangerous task of connecting rolling stock with link & pin couplers.  This system, which resulted in many severe injuries including loss of limbs and even death, required the brakeman to be between the cars while holding the link in position to slide into the receiver of the car being couple as it was pushed by an engine.  With the widespread adoption of the Janney automatic knuckle coupler by U.S. railroads, the U.S. Government finally prohibited the use of link and pin couplers at the turn of the century.
On April 21, 1868, Janney was awarded his first patent-- he would receive twenty related to railroad couplers in his lifetime-- for "constructing an automatically-working car coupling, in such a manner that the the coupling and uncoupling are performed without endangering the operator's life by going between the cars."  Like hundreds of other designs for better couplers, Janney's initial design did not arouse any interest.

However, Janney continued to finesse his ideas about automatic railroad coupling.  One day he hooked his fingers together and  envisioned a safer coupler similar to the clasping of two hands in a vertical position with the knuckles bent, which forms a strong link, but can be easily unclasped.  The Alexandria drygoods clerk reputedly spent many lunch breaks whittling a working wooden model. of such a coupler.  Lacking mechanical drawing skills, Janney found a draftsman to  produce a drawing for his patent application.

In 1873, the US Patent Office awarded Janney a patent for this coupler design.  In his patent application, Janney extolled the benefits of his design:  "the advantages of the described construction are numerous. It will couple readily under all circumstances if one of the hooks is open, but will not if both are closed. It is adapted for use upon cars of different heights. It has no lateral or longitudinal play, but moves freely vertically. It is impossible for it to become uncoupled unless the cars leave the track"


Drawing from Eli H. Janney's 1873 patent for an automatic railroad coupler. (National Archives)

Janney, who was of modest means, received financial backing from several friends for the manufacture of four couplers to be tested on the Loudoun & Hampshire Railroad, a local short line whose right of way now serves as the W&OD Trail.  Janney's coupler was commercially tested in 1874 on passenger cars on the Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne and Chicago Railway.  The results were positive and other railroads, including the Pennsylvania Railroad, adopted Janney's coupler.  In 1878, Janney sold his patent rights to the McClonway & Torley Company of Pittsburgh.  Nine years later, the Master Car Builder Association chose the Janney Coupler over 40 other proposals as the railroad industry standard.  Before widespread adoption of the Janney coupler, nearly 40 percent of rail-yard injuries and deaths were caused by coupling accidents.  By 1902, only 4 percent of railroad accidents were attributed to car coupling.  Besides drastically reducing brakeman injuries, the Janney coupler also helped increase the efficiency of railroad switching operations.  Incidentally, McClonway & Torley continues to be a leading producer of standard couplers.


After selling his patents, Janney used the proceeds to purchase a farm in Fairfax County, where he quietly spent most of his remaining years.  However, he did not completely give up mechanical tinkering and received several additional patents into the early 1900s for improvements to the Janney coupler.  He also was active in the R.E. Lee Camp of Confederate Veterans. Janney died at his home on 607 Cameron Street in Alexandria on June 16, 1912 and was buried at Ivy Hill Cemetery in Alexandria  An inscription was placed on his gravestone stating "His work was a benefaction which in itself will constitute his worthiest memorial."

Although Eli H. Janney never became wealthy off of his coupler design, the old soldier certainly would be pleased that his design has withstood the test of time with only some minor changes over the years.  Although his initial design was a flop, Janney, with no formal mechanical training or practical railroad experience, continued to tinker for several years until coming up with a design, which is still used nearly 150 years later.

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