Joshua Lionel Cowen (born Cohen on August 25, 1877 in New York City) began to experiment with battery-operated lamps in his spare time. A local merchant approached him one day and asked him to create a whimsical window display to attract the public. His first effort produced the Electric Express, a showpiece featuring model trains powered by a dry-cell battery wired to the track. It was a grand departure from the wind-up, steam powered, and motorized model trains of the time.
Railroad tracks were criss-crossing the country, and trolley cars or streetcars were becoming a staple in every major city. New York City, in particular, had developed an elaborate transportation system of electric-powered streetcars. This became the model for Cowen's displays the following year. Once again, his displays were a huge hit. The orders started coming in from stores as far away as Rhode Island, and Cowen found himself much in demand.
In 1903, he set up the Lionel Manufacturing Company. The company started out producing store displays featuring electric trains and trolley cars, but five years later, the Lionel company realized a larger market for children's toys. It was in this mass market that the toy train firm could produce model trains with movable working parts that captured the imaginations of children of all ages. In 1909, Lionel train sets added the tag line "The standard of the world" to all their promotional advertising.
While every other major model railway trains producer around the world was manufacturing model trains with steam engines or wind-up clockwork mechanisms, Lionel trains continued to perfect the electric model train. He understood electricity and realized it would become the power of the future. In 1918, the company was renamed the Lionel Corporation, and by 1920, Lionel trains had become one of three major American producers of model electric trains and accessories. One of the most popular Lionel train sets is the Lionel Polar Express set. Vintage Lionel trains are much in demand with model train collectors nowadays and van be quite valuable (look at the listings on this page and sort 'price highest' to get an impression).