Joshua Lionel Cowen, born Joshua Lionel Cohen, was an American inventor and the cofounder of Lionel Corporation. His corporation manufactured model railroads and toy trains. The eighth of nine children of Jewish immigrants, and a college dropout, Cowen received his first patent in 1899, for a device that ignited a photographer's flash. The same year, Cowen received a defense contract from the US Navy to produce mine fuses. This contract paid $12,000, giving Cowen enough capital to pursue his dream.
The following year, Cowen and one of his partners founded Lionel Corporation in New York. Cowen had built his first toy train at age 7, attaching a small steam engine to a wooden locomotive he had carved. The engine exploded, damaging his parents' kitchen. Cowen sold his first electric train in 1901 to a store owner in Manhattan, intending to use the train to call attention to other merchandise. The store owner returned the next day to order six more trains, because customers wanted to buy the store display. By 1902, Lionel was primarily a toy train manufacturer.
Cowen legally changed the spelling of his last name from the original Cohen in 1910 for unknown reasons.
Cowen's marketing skills ultimately made him into a millionaire. The tradition linking toy trains to Christmas originated in Germany in the mid 1800's. It was expanded by Cowen, who in the 1920's convinced the owners of large department stores to incorporate elaborate train setups, which he provided, around their large Christmas tree displays. He hoped to increase demand among small boys for toy trains as Christmas gifts. Lionel was soon the largest of three American toy train manufacturers, and for a short time in the early 1950s, Lionel was the largest toy manufacturer in the world. However, by the mid-1950s, public interest had shifted. Cowen retired in 1959, selling his 55,000 shares of Lionel stock to his great-nephew Roy Cohn.