The Wisconsin Connection
Ezra Miller and His Hook Coupler
Text by Don Ginter
The obituary of Colonel Ezra Miller, appearing in The Gazette of Janesville, WI on July 9, 1885, stated that his "invention of a car coupler,...which was adopted on all the leading railroads of the United States and Canada,...reaped him a fortune." One of his biographies perhaps stated his contribution to the railroad industry more boastfully when it said, "...the 'Miller Platform, Coupler and Buffer' was promptly recognized in the railway world as the greatest life-saving invention of the age."
Ezra Miller was born in New Jersey in 1812 and educated as a civil, topographical and mechanical engineer. At the age of 21, he enlisted in the 2nd regiment horse artillery of the New York militia obtaining the rank of full colonel after ten years. After marriage at the age of 29, he settled at Fort Hamilton, NY. In 1848 he moved with his family to Rock County, WI, settling in the town of Magnolia, where he was employed in the survey of state lands for the new state of Wisconsin, and also as a farmer. Following these early years with the state survey, he later engaged in railroad survey and construction work with the Chicago & North Western Railway Co. In 1851, Governor Dewey commissioned him a colonel in the Wisconsin militia and in 1852 he was elected to the Wisconsin Senate, serving one term. At another time, he served as the Town of Magnolia's Justice of the Peace.

Around 1856, Miller moved to the city of Janesville and purchased the Ogden House, which still exists today at 109-111 East Milwaukee Street. A year later, President Buchanan appointed him Postmaster of Janesville, a position he held through Buchanan's presidency. At this time, the post office was moved to the Ogden House.

While employed by the C&NW Railway in 1853, and continuing after his move into Janesville, Colonel Miller became interested in improving the existing methods of coupling railroad cars which then had a very poor safety record. For some ten years he studied and experimented with this problem until obtaining a patent on a semi-automatic passenger car coupling system in 1863. Continuing his studies, he improved on his basic idea and obtained two more patents, one in 1865, and another in 1866. With these patents, Miller produced a combined railroad passenger car platform, coupler, and buffer design that provided a stronger end platform, now moved up and placed in line with the coach's frame to better transfer axial motion through the cars when starting, stopping, or operating the train. His semi-automatic coupler and buffer design assured a tight connection between cars and provided a system to absorb the end impact forces between the cars. All of this practically eliminated the telescoping of cars in accidents and reduced the maiming and killing of trainmen from crushed fingers, hands, and ribs when standing between cars while coupling them with the old loose link and pin system.

This generic illustration of a passenger car end beam and railings from Miller's patent papers shows a large diagonal lever (at right) that was used to disengage the Hook Coupler when disconnecting cars.
This illustration is from U.S. Patent #56,594, issued to Ezra Miller on July 24, 1866. It depicts two cars coupled together via the Miller Hook Coupler and buffer system. Both illustrations from Don Ginter collection. Click on images for a larger view.
The Miller platform, coupler and buffer proved an immediate success quickly replacing the dangerous loose link coupling system throughout the United States and was widely adopted on the European railroads as well. His system continued to be used on passenger cars through the 1880s until being replaced with the more familiar Janney coupling system in use today.

In 1866, Miller left Janesville and returned to the East, settling in Brooklyn, NY for several years before purchasing a farm and retiring near his birthplace in New Jersey where he died in 1885.