Black History Month: Andrew J. Beard

Over the years, the railroads have benefited from a diverse workforce. Most people think of the Transcontinental Railroad as the most varied workgroup with Asians, primarily Chinese, providing the labor to build the railroad in the West. However, railroads have a much more varied history than that. For example, German and Irish immigrants provided a large part of the workforce in the North, while the South utilized mostly slave and convict labor. Of course, railroads and Pullman Porters go hand in hand when examining railroad history as well. However, each week this month, we will highlight an African American inventor and his contribution to the railroads.

Andrew Jackson Beard (1849-1921)

Andrew Jackson Beard is best known for his improvements and inventions for coupling rail cars. Beard began working for the Alabama & Chattanooga Railroad as a coupler. Coupling, the joining of two rail cars, was a manual process and extremely dangerous. Beard would jump between two rail cars as the coupler while the train backed up and secured the new car to the train with a pin. If the timing was off or something went wrong, loss of limbs or life was often the result. Rumors claim that Beard lost his leg during a coupling incident.[1]

As a result of all the injuries, Beard invented the “Jenny coupler.” This coupler included two interlocking pieces that locked automatically, eliminating the need for a man to jump between the two rail cars. Beard was awarded a patent for the “Jenny coupler” in September of 1897. The invention saved an untold number of limbs and lives in the future, and versions of his coupler are still in use today.

Beard later sold the rights to the patent for $50,000 (approximately $1.6 million today). Thanks to Beard’s engineering ingenuity, the U.S. Congress passed the Federal Safety Appliance Act, making it illegal to operate any rail cars without automatic couplers.[2]

Note: Beard’s “Jenny coupler” should not be confused with Eli Janney’s “Janney coupler” which was patented in 1873.[3]


[1] Jonathon Eizyk, “Andrew Jackson Beard,” Encyclopedia of Alabama (Alabama Humanities Alliance, January 26, 2016),

[2] “Railroad Safety Appliance Act,” Wikipedia (Wikimedia Foundation, November 3, 2021),

[3] Jonathon Eizyk, “Andrew Jackson Beard,” Encyclopedia of Alabama (Alabama Humanities Alliance, January 26, 2016),

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