Westinghouse Patents His Air Brake Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The development of the air brake permitted the rapid and reliable stopping of trains, which not only increased the safety and speed of railroad travel and transportation but also increased the ride’s overall comfort for passengers and train workers.

Summary of Event

One of the most problematic factors limiting the growth of the railroad in its early years was the problem of stopping a moving train quickly and safely. For decades, the only way to bring a train to a halt was a system of handbrakes at the front and the back of each car, and a brakeman who would turn a wheel to activate them, jumping between the two cars on which he was stationed. Westinghouse, George Air brakes Inventions;air brakes Railroads;air brakes [kw]Westinghouse Patents His Air Brake (Apr., 1869) [kw]Patents His Air Brake, Westinghouse (Apr., 1869) [kw]Air Brake, Westinghouse Patents His (Apr., 1869) [kw]Brake, Westinghouse Patents His Air (Apr., 1869) Westinghouse, George Air brakes Inventions;air brakes Railroads;air brakes [g]United States;Apr., 1869: Westinghouse Patents His Air Brake[4310] [c]Inventions;Apr., 1869: Westinghouse Patents His Air Brake[4310] [c]Transportation;Apr., 1869: Westinghouse Patents His Air Brake[4310] [c]Engineering;Apr., 1869: Westinghouse Patents His Air Brake[4310] [c]Science and technology;Apr., 1869: Westinghouse Patents His Air Brake[4310] [c]Trade and commerce;Apr., 1869: Westinghouse Patents His Air Brake[4310] Vanderbilt, Cornelius

Although brakemen tried to apply their brakes in unison upon the engineer’s “down brakes” signal, inevitably there was unevenness, which led to lurching and to cars bumping into each other. Passengers could be knocked from their seats, while fragile freight could be smashed. Worse, the process was dangerous for the brakemen, who could fall from their perches or be crushed between cars that bumped. Furthermore, the latencies inherent in the system meant that brakes could not be applied rapidly. Many disastrous collisions were caused simply because the brakemen could not apply the brakes fast enough after the engineer saw a danger and signalled them to act.

Shortly after the end of the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865), the braking problem was brought to the attention of an ambitious young inventor by the name of George Westinghouse. He was trying to sell a device by which derailed cars could be quickly and easily re-placed on the tracks, and the superintendent of one company pointed out to him that the real problem facing the railroad industry was difficult braking. The truth of that statement was brought home not long after, when Westinghouse witnessed a horrific accident caused solely because the engineers could not get the brakes applied on their trains in time to prevent a collision, in spite of having seen each other well in advance.

Westinghouse applied his capable mind to the problem, trying several possibilities, including a bumper sensor and steam-driven brakes. All of them had fatal flaws, which soon became obvious upon further study. He was beginning to despair when he came across a magazine containing an account of a pneumatic drill used to dig a tunnel through a mountain in the Alps. Almost immediately he recognized the potential of compressed air to operate the brakes on an entire train, smoothly and simultaneously, at the command of the train’s engineer.

Handle and control valve of a Westinghouse air brake.

With that conceptual breakthrough, he would design a system by which a single air valve in the cab of the locomotive could apply the brakes on every car simultaneously. However, he had no means to build a working prototype. Worse, his concept was so revolutionary that he had great difficulty convincing people of the feasability of his idea. Furthermore, to top all his other problems, he was removed from the company he had created to manufacture and market the train car re-placer, leaving him without an income to fund his research.

Westinghouse visited Cornelius Vanderbilt Vanderbilt, Cornelius , the head of the New York Central Railroad and one of the leading industrialists of the Gilded Age. Although it was not Vanderbilt’s habit to grant interviews to people off the street, Westinghouse’s persistence won him an appointment. However, his carefully prepared speech fell flat, for Vanderbilt saw only absurdity in the idea of using air to operate a brake. To him the wind was too weak to do such work, never mind that wind had moved whole ships in the age of sail.

Refusing to be defeated, in April, 1869, Westinghouse took out his own patent on the air brake. An old associate, Ralph Baggaley Baggaley, Ralph , advanced him enough money to build a working prototype of his design. As he was considering how to approach railroads with his invention, an executive of the Panhandle Railroad came to him with a proposal. The Panhandle Railroad would make a train available for a test of Westinghouse’s new brake. In return, Westinghouse had to install the system at his own expense and promise to pay for any damages incurred if the brakes failed to work as advertised. The installation proved a financial strain, but by careful economies, Westinghouse was able to accomplish the work.

On the appointed test day, a number of Panhandle executives boarded the test train, headed toward Philadelphia for the test. Westinghouse’s plan was to demonstrate the brakes at pre-set points, which would provide varying conditions of grade. However, chance provided a far more dramatic opportunity: A drayman’s horses had stopped on the tracks and stubbornly refused to proceed. As the test train approached, the horses panicked and finally moved, but with a lurch that threw the driver onto the track. There was simply no way the driver, with the wind knocked out of him, could recollect his wits and jump clear before the locomotive would crush him under its wheels. Westinghouse and the train’s engineer saw him in time, though, and a quick application of the new air brakes brought the train safely to a halt. Although the executives in the last car were tossed about by the force of such a sudden application of the brakes, all was quickly forgiven when they discovered that it was to save human life.

Although the effectiveness of the air-brake system had been amply proved, Westinghouse still insisted on going through the full demonstration he had planned. He wanted the executives swayed by the logic of reliable performance as well as the emotional impact of having saved the drayman’s life.

With the success of his invention, Westinghouse was able to capitalize a new company, the Westinghouse Air Brake Company, to manufacture and install the brakes. His ferocious work ethic, however, kept him from being completely satisfied with the success of his invention. Rather, he would look for ways to improve it, and he did just that.

Westinghouse developed a special valve system that would apply the brakes if the air pressure in the system were to fail. Strictly speaking, the new triple-valve system used air pressure to keep the brake shoe from applying rather than using air pressure to apply the brake shoe as had been the case in earlier systems. Because of this change, a train would stop automatically whenever the air-brake system was deprived of compressed air. Rather than leaving the engineer with a false sense of safety, only to discover that there was no braking capacity when it was needed, the new braking system would automatically revert to a safe state in case of failure. That is, if the brakes lost compressed air, they would engage and, therefore, brake, making the system virtually fail-safe.

Significance

Not only did the development of the air brake completely transform the railroad, it also completely transformed the life of George Westinghouse. Although it made him rich, he did not choose to dissipate that wealth in high living. Instead, he reinvested the money in further research and invention. As he perfected the air brake, he moved to other railroad-related work, such as developing modern signaling systems.

Westinghouse also developed an interest in electricity, which led him to join forces with Croatian-born American inventor Nikola Tesla Tesla, Nikola to create the modern alternating-current (AC) electrical distribution system, in opposition to Thomas Alva Edison’s direct-current (DC) system, which was in fact a technological dead end. Westinghouse also modified some of his earlier air experiments to create the modern compressed-air shock absorber for automobiles, thus making the early roads much easier to drive.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Grant, H. Roger. The Railroad: The Life Story of a Technology. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2005. An overview of the development of the railroad from its earliest beginnings to the twenty-first century, including the role of air brakes in making rail transportation and rail travel safer.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jonnes, Jill. Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World. New York: Random House, 2003. Although it focuses mostly on the later years of Westinghouse’s company, when he was moving into electrical generation and distribution, this work discusses to some degree his invention of the air brake.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Leupp, Francis E. George Westinghouse: His Life and Achievements. Boston: Little, Brown, 1918. A detailed biography that includes details often passed over in later works. Includes several plates of photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Levine, I. E. Inventive Wizard: George Westinghouse. New York: Julian Messner, 1962. An overview of Westinghouse’s career as an inventor, including a discussion of his invention of the air brake.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Usselman, Steven W. “Air Brakes for Freight Trains: Technological Innovation in the American Railroad Industry, 1869-1900.” Business History Review 58 (Spring, 1984): 30-50. The best single source available on how Westinghouse developed and promoted the air brake.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">

    Wilmerding and the Westinghouse Air Brake Company. Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia, 2002. A history of the company and its impact upon Wilmerding, the southwest Pennsylvania town where Westinghouse’s air-brake business was based.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wormser, Richard. The Iron Horse: How Railroads Changed America. New York: Walker, 1993. A historical overview of railroading, including the role of the air brake in making railroads safer.

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