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"Car Coupler." Patent no. 37347, filed by William James Shortill, 1891


Patent no. 37347. Filing year 1891.

"Car Coupler," William James Shortill.

The first system devised to couple two railway cars together was the "pin" system, in which an iron pin was threaded through overlapping holes on the ends of each car. Removing and inserting the pin, however, could only be done manually, a dangerous task that often resulted in injury to a worker caught between two shifting cars. The looseness of the pin connection also led to jolts and jarring when a train started up. Clearly, a better system was needed.

The solution proposed in this 1889 patent by William James Shortill, of Halton, Ontario, involved a coupling mechanism "in which the coupling pin can be lifted without going between the cars." It consisted of a coupling pin on a lever attached to a chain. When the chain was pulled, the lever raised the pin out of the coupling box and locked it into place. When a car approached, its slotted coupling link was guided into the coupling box, unlocking the lever and dropping the pin into place. A worker could stand off to the side and lift the pin by pulling the chain, thus keeping out of harm's way.

Despite the merits of Shortill's concept, the most successful design for a car coupler dispensed with the pin entirely. Andrew Jackson Beard, an African-American railroad worker and inventor, patented the "Jenny Coupler" in 1897 in the United States. Beard's mechanism consisted of a curved, pivoting head on one car that locked into a swiveling head on another car. Beard reportedly sold his patent in the same year for $50,000 U.S., a considerable amount at the time. It would have been worth the price, though, as Beard's system is still the basis for railway car couplers today.


"Railway Car Coupler." World of Invention. Edited by Kimberly A. McGrath. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research, 1999, p. 514.

Gibbs, C. R. Black Inventors: From Africa to America. Silver Spring, Md: Three Dimensional Publishing Company, 2000.