Andrew J. Beard
Andrew Jackson Beard invented the first automatic railroad car coupler, which dramatically reduced serious injuries to railroad workers. Beard's invention was a forerunner of automatic couplers used today.
Beard was born a slave in Jefferson County, Alabama. Emancipated at age fifteen, he became a farmer and then built and ran a flourmill. Despite having received no formal education, Beard invented several types of plows, patented two of them, and successfully invested profits from the inventions in real estate. He went on to invent a steam-driven rotary engine before patenting his most important device, the automatic railroad car coupler, in 1897.
Prior to Beard's invention, workers braced themselves between railroad cars and coupled them manually. Few who worked at manual car coupling avoided the loss of at least a finger; many lost a hand or limb, or were crushed between cars. Beard's "Jenny Coupler" eliminated human involvement between the cars by engaging horizontal jaws that automatically locked together when two cars bumped into each other.
The same year that Beard patented his coupler, Congress enacted the Federal Safety Appliance Act. The Act made it unlawful to operate railroad cars that were not equipped with automatic couplers.