Flowerpots, Flashlights and Trains

Inventers are often looked upon as eccentric and scatterbrained. Many might develop dozens, if not hundreds, of inventions before they hit it big. Most, however, never make the big leagues. Also, the majority of inventors do not make good businessmen. Their invention might be great but the way they market it makes it something few want to own. Take the case of Joshua L. Cowen. He was an inventor in late 1890‘s and early 1900’s. His first practical invention he thought would revolutionize the photography process. It was a fuse to ignite magnesium-powered flashes used in taking photographs. It failed to sell. He gave up marketing the invention. A few years later, the United States Navy used the product to detonate underwater mines in 1898 during the Spanish American war.

His next invention was a flowerpot illuminator. It was a metal tube with a battery and small light bulb inside. There was no top to the tube. The tube was placed in flowerbeds at night to shine light upon the flowers. He tried marketing the product for a few years before he finally gave up. Sales were so dismal he gave all rights of the "worthless" product to Conrad Hubert, one of his salesmen. Immediately, Hubert changed the invention’s name from "flowerpot illuminator" to "an electric hand torch." To gain recognition and promotion for his product, Hubert assembled a number of tubular flashlights and gave them to New York City policemen in different precincts. They proclaimed it the most useful invention of the era. Thus was born the flashlight. The invention that Cowen gave away to Hubert eventually became the basis for the American Eveready Battery Company. When Hubert died in 1928 his estate was worth over $15,000.000 - quite a princely sum to be earned from a frivolous invention!

After Cowen gave away the rights to his flowerpot light invention, he returned his attention to his hobby of carving locomotives and train cars out of wood. He had been carving them since he was 7. In 1902 Cowen crafted small engines to motorize the train cars. These toys did not run on a track but rather wandered aimlessly. He then sold them to stores to place in their display windows to attract customers. Soon parents wanted to buy them for their children. Cowen quickly developed a transformer and a three rail track that could be snapped together to form a track for them to operate on. Sales of his newest invention were instant! He made millions off his toy invention. By the way, Joshua L. Cowen’s middle name was Lionel.

The Man who Saved Football

In honor of the upcoming Super Bowl, I am offering information about football that very few are aware of. In the early 1900's there was a large group of people that were lobbying Congess to have football banned - both college and professional games. They declared that football was a brutal and violent and over 100 college student players had been killed playing the game. President Theodore Roosevelt was a fan of football and didn't want the game banned. In 1905 Roosevelt called an urgent meeting at the White House and came up with a few rule changes that both sides could live with. First, he legalized the forward pass. Previous to this change, any pass could only be thrown laterally - NOT FORWARD. In addition, rather than only 5 yards per down, Roosevelt changed it to 10 yards for a down. Also, the new rules outlawed holding and unnecessary roughness. 1906 was the first season that the new rules were implemented. There have been few rule changes since.

While tough football purists decried the rule changes, the new rules wound up making the game not only safer but also more popular than ever. Thanks to President Theodore Roosevelt, football passed into a new era.

HistoryBuff.com News
  • Your editor was recently interviewed by a reporter for the PBS series Antique Roadshow. They plan on running an article about HistoryBuff.com and newspaper collecting in an upcoming issue of their magazine "Antique Roadshow Insider."

  • Your editor will be the only guest on a one-hour radio program for WPDA radio station, located in Wisconsin, on Saturday morning, January 22, 2005 from 10 to 11 AM. I will be discussing history trivia and newspaper collecting.

  • 39 newspapers have been added to the HistoryBuff.com Online Newspaper Archive. In addition, several new features have been implemented to make viewing and reading the newspapers better. The temporary URL for the new archives is http://www.historybuff.com/archives_new/tree.cgi. Note that many of the years at this time are empty. Within a month, the archives will contain several hundred newspapers. Please check out the new features and let me know what you think.

December Contest

Question: The movie "Inherit the Wind" was based on a famous 20th century court case. Who was the attorney in this trial that had ran for president twice?

ANSWER: The correct answer was William Jennings Bryan. However, I goofed. Bryan ran for President three times and not twice.

Seventy-seven people entered the December contest. Nine were disqualified because they did not have the correct subject heading in their email entry. Two people that won a prize in the previous 90 days entered but were disqualified. Seventeen people did not indicate which prize they wanted to win. Two sent their entry in late. Four had incorrect answers. This left only 43 people eligible to win. Most people selected the DVD "The Jackie Robinson Story" as their prize. (Only one was available.)


  • Terry B McDaniel - South Carolina
  • Linda Kolocotronis - Massachusetts
  • Kevin Chambers - Colorado
  • Barbara Babcock - New Jersey
  • Greg Mahoney - Illinois
  • Tom Lahners - California
  • Stan Edington - California
  • Bill F. Lindsay - Arizona
  • R. Foster - Deleware

  • This Issue's Questions

    Since most subscribers will likely want the grand prize, I am offering two contests. To enter the grand prize contest, send by email an essay of not more than 75 words relating why you want to win it.

    To enter the alternate contest, answer the following 3 questions:

    1) What denomination of American currency has the names of several states engraved on one of the images on it?

    2) How many states are engraved on the bill?

    2) Which ONE of the prizes offered (except the grand prize) do you want to win?

    Contest Rules

    • Contest entry deadline is Monday, January 17, 2005. Later entries will be disqualified.

    • Subscribers may enter both contests, but can only win one prize.

    • To enter, email your answer to help@historybuff.com

    • If entering for the Grand Prize, enter "Contest Entry Grand Prize" for the subject heading

    • If entering for any of the other prizes, enter "Contest Entry" for the subject heading

    • From subscribers submitting the correct answer and correct subject heading, as well as advising which prize they want to win, twelve will be selected to win one of the prizes below.

    • Subscribers to this newsletter that won a prize in my trivia contests in the last 90 days are ineligible to win.

    Grand Prize (One winner will be selected)
    Deluxe French Revolution Box Set Includes:

    • Red velvet bag with History Channel Logo
    • DVD of the Documentary
    • Booklet
    • CD filled with full color paintings
    • Two French Gourmet Cookbooks
    • Slip case to hold the contents
    DVD's (Select only one DVD or the Civil War Newspaper)

    D.O.A. (1950)

    Starring Edmond O'Brien

    Angel and the Badman (1947)

    Starring John Wayne

    Bela Lugosi
    Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1952)

    Starring Bela Lugosi

    History Channel Documentary
    about the fall of the Alamo

    The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

    Starring Peter Lorre

    Bugs Bunny Cartoon Craze

    Over a full hour of early classic
    Bugs Bunny Animation

    Original Historic
    Boston Daily Journal Civil War Newspaper

    (Two winners awarded one newspaper each)
    History Channel T-Shirt With History Channel Logo
    (Three winners awarded one T-shirt each)
    That's it for this issue.

    Rick Brown