A baboon worked for a South African railroad company in the 1880s.

  • Rail signal man and baboon
Rail signal man and baboon
Royal Geographical Society/ Alamy Stock Photo

In 1881, a South African railroad employee named James Wide purchased a baboon named Jack whom he trained to become his assistant. Four years earlier, Wide had suffered a terrible accident in which he lost both his legs, and he was struggling to perform at work. He discovered Jack at a local market, where the baboon was leading an oxcart. Wide was so impressed with the animal’s abilities that he purchased the creature and deputized Jack as an employee at the Port Elizabeth Railway Station.

At first, Wide enlisted Jack’s help by training him to push a trolley during the morning commute. But Jack really thrived as a signalman, and he was later taught how to operate the station switchboard. After watching Wide, Jack learned how to throw switches and change tracks, and his work was so impeccable that he never experienced a single incident over the course of nine years. Eventually, Jack could perform the duties without Wide’s supervision, and passing conductors had no idea that a baboon was operating the system until they saw it with their own eyes.

Before long, word of Jack’s “employment” reached authorities, who decided to give the creature a competency test. To their amazement, Jack passed with flying colors, saving both his and his owner’s jobs. Jack was given an official employment number and paid 20 cents a day plus half a bottle of beer each week. Jack continued working for the railroad company until his death in 1890.

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