June 22, 2024

Black Entrepreneur History

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Jacob Calvin Smith – First Inventor of Patent Automatic Car Coupler and Air Brake

Once upon a time in Black Entrepreneur History lived an African American man named Jacob Calvin Smith who invented a patent automatic car coupler and air brake in the late 1800s.

Jacob Calvin Smith of Luling, Texas, is recorded as to have invented a patent automatic car coupler and air brake. Upon exhibition of his invention at the District Conference in Luling, Texas, the public saw it as a success in September of 1895.

What amazed them was that it made “going between the cars to couple” no longer necessary because “the ears couple themselves”, being automatic. His invention was considered one of the top and was predicted to gain him much success, despite him being a Black man, due to over 9000 people being either injured or killed every year at that time due to “coupling and uncoupling cars” manually. Calvin’s invention was quoted as being a “life saving machine” and not simply a “labor saving machine”.

Inventor Jacob Calvin Smith was noted as a man who was very polite and intelligent while keeping the welfare of his race of African American people at the forefront. The Brownsville Herald also states that had Calvin been in England, he would have been knighted for his invention.

There was an African American man named Andrew Jackson Beard who patented an automatic Rail Car Coupler in 1897 and inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame in Ohio and National Railroad Hall of Fame, however, he was not the first African American inventor to invent one. James Calvin Smith is the first inventor of his own type of automatic car coupler which was documented to have been invented in 1895 along with the air brake.

At the invention of James Calvin Smith’s car coupler, The Brownsville Herald had already documented that “the railroads will get hold of this one of these days and Mr. Smith will be fixed“, meaning he would be paid greatly for his invention. However, it seems Beard somehow got the patent only two years after Jacob Calvin Smith exhibited his invention.

Also, there was another inventor named Eli Janney (not African American). Janney's invention was a semi-automatic coupler, not fully automatic and that was invented in 1873 called the Janney coupler.


  • The Brownsville Daily Herald; Brownsville, Texas, 17 Sept. 1895, Tuesday, Page 1