Andrew Beard

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Portrait of Beard courtesy BPL Archives

Andrew Jackson Beard (born 1849 at Woodland, near Mount Pinson in Jefferson County; died May 10, 1921 at the Jefferson County Alms House) was a farmer and mechanic. and the inventor of the automatic rail-car coupler, a type still used today.

Beard was born into slavery before the Civil War to Milton Beard and Creasey Tatum, slaves in a plantation owned by the Beards, from whom they took the surname. He was emancipated at the age of 14 by presidential proclamation, but remained on the farm until he was about 18. Though he could not read or write, his mechanical abilities and inventiveness became well known through his employment as a carpenter, blacksmith and railroad worker.

Through his labors as a sharecropper, Beard was able to acquire an 80-acre farm near Center Point where he and his wife, Edie, raised three sons, John, Jack and Andrew, Jr. Andrew Jr died soon after finishing school. Beard also lent his name to the four children of a tenant family on the plantation headed by Hattie Horton (Arthur, Luther, William and Mamie). He constructed a small building which served as church and school for families in the community.

While still working a farm, Beard built his own flour mill. He received his first patent, for a plow, in 1881, and sold the rights for $4,000 in 1884. He patented another improved plow design in 1887 and sold it for $5,200. He invested his profits into a real-estate business and moved to Woodlawn, and then to East Lake during its early development, and later returned to Mount Pinson.

In the 1890s Beard took a job with the Alabama and Chattanooga Railroad, part of the Georgia Pacific system. With the help of Mel Drennen, he applied for and recevied a patent for an improved rotary engine with a better system for balancing internal pressure. Frequent brutal accidents involving botched car couplings cost the limbs of numerous fellow railroad workers. Beard was motivated to create a means of automating the process to pull the workers out of harm's way.

Several years later he submitted a patent for a "Jenny Coupler" which greatly simplified the process, eliminating the need for a worker to stand between uncoupled cars. He built a wooden model to demonstrate the invention, which was displayed at a convention of the Master Car Builder's Association in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Based on the direct applicability of his life-saving design, Beard was made an honorary member of that association.

Beard's attempts to perfect and market his inventions were supported by several Birmingham investors. His several patents for improved couplings were approved between 1897 and 1905. He founded the Beard Automatic Coupler Company and later sold the rights to the coupler to a New York company for $50,000. Further royalties were calculated to have made Beard the first black millionaire in Jefferson County. He invested in real estate and in a popular jitney service which ran out of an office on the 200 block of 18th Street North.

Nevertheless, Beard suffered his share of business failures and declining health. In his later years, virtually paralyzed, he lived with his foster daughter, Mamie, in Woodlawn. He was admitted to the Jefferson County Alms House on 11th Avenue North and 54th Street soon before he died. His funeral was held at Jackson Street Baptist Church and his remains lie in an unmarked grave in Woodlawn Cemetery.


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