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July 2012 Baselines: Westinghouse Air Brake Company

The Inventor Of The Air Brake For Trucks, Trains, And Transportation

Text By Bill Senefsky

The Inventor of the Air Brake For Trucks, Trains, and Global Transportation
With the great explosion of inventors and their achievements in the 1800s, one of the greatest was George Westinghouse. A man of a variety of interests, one of his success stories was the invention of the air brake for trucks. The transportation field would probably have progressed on its own without Westinghouse’s air brake—but certainly not as fast. Beginning with this enormous step forward in safety technology (that eventually was used in the rail, marine, and diesel trucking industries), Westinghouse’s company went on to see many derivatives over the last century and a half but still remains alive and well today.

Heavy Industry
Schenectady, New York, a city that thrived on its foundation of the American railroad and the production of steam locomotives, was the birthplace of Westinghouse. Surrounded by this industry from birth, little Westinghouse grew up in a rural farming community. At a young age he was exposed to both farm industry business procedures and the construction of farm machinery, their operation, and most importantly, their care, due to his father’s equipment business. Regardless of his being exposed to this rather exciting environment, the 15-year-old lad ran away from home during the Civil War to join the Union Navy. The result of this life-changing adventure was that he was trained as a shipboard engineering officer, a position of some distinction. With the ending of hostilities, he returned to civilian life and attended Union College in his hometown. Like other inventors of his time, he dropped out after a mere three months to pursue more exciting venues. By the end of 1865, Westinghouse had already received a couple of patents; one for the design of an improved rotary steam engine, and another for a safety device that remounted derailed freight cars.

His eventual cash cow moneymaking device found its roots in a severe train wreck, which occurred in 1866. Two freight trains traveling on level track suddenly found themselves crashing head on. Even though both engineers immediately saw each other at a distance, both were unable to stop their trains in time. The cause was obvious. During this period, trains found themselves traveling at unproductive speeds due to the ineffective, cumbersome, slow method of braking each car individually. The crash meant the inventor found himself seriously delayed while traveling home.

At the time, the state-of-the-art train braking technology was a man called the brakeman. On cue, the brakeman’s task was to set the brakes on each car using a wooden pick handle. To further coordinate the train’s braking (so the cars did not slam into each other or cause a derailment), the brakeman had to turn the heavy iron wheels in unison upon hearing the engineer’s whistle. Routine stops were precarious, emergency procedures were unheard of, and train-traveling speeds were beyond slow.

Unified Braking Device
Westinghouse began working on a device that would unify and thus create a braking system controlled by the locomotive. His initial concept utilized a heavy-duty chain that would run the length of a train to unify the brakes of each car powered by a steam cylinder under the pulling locomotive. Each car would have an independent brake cylinder utilizing continuous steam pressure from the locomotive to prevent any slack in the chain. A major problem was how to create and connect the flexible couplings.

The inventor discovered an article involving compressed air pressure driving rock drills in the construction of a pipeline in the Italian Alps. There, 3,000-foot hoses were successfully used in this project. Air was compressed to 1⁄6 of its natural volume in this application. He applied this technology to his application with a patent for his air brake in April 1869. Westinghouse was 22 years old.

By the following September, the Westinghouse Air Brake Company had its incorporation papers. The following year, the company set up operations in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. By 1875, 2,281 locomotives along with 7,254 cars were equipped with Westinghouse air brakes. Ongoing engineering changes were constantly made, allowing heavier loads to be carried at higher speeds with improved stopping power. With safer operating systems, America’s railroads doubled their miles of track between 1870 and 1880—and doubled again a decade later.

Obviously, foreign rail operators became interested in Westinghouse’s air brake technology, so the company started operations in France in 1878, the United Kingdom in 1881, Germany in 1884, Russia in 1899, Canada in 1903, Italy in 1906, and Australia in 1907. Homeland demand forced expansion first to Alleghany then to a full company town in Wilmerding, Pennsylvania.

Westinghouse continued to utilize his initial patented product to provide funding for his expansion into other fields of interest, with the formation of 60 additional enterprises. It should also be noted that he was a major competitor of Thomas Edison.

Financial Panic of 1907
Company divisions faced a severe crisis in 1907. As a result, Westinghouse found himself losing control of and selling many of his interests. The air brake operations remained firmly under his ownership. By 1911, however, old age required him to relinquish control of all his remaining operations, and he passed away in 1914.

The Westinghouse Air Brake division remained in good hands and was run by a management team made up of men who had risen through its ranks. Many management members had been with the company more than 40 years. During WWI, the company, like many others, supplied munitions and supporting gear to the Allied Forces. In 1917, true to its railroad heritage, the company took an interest in and purchased the Union Switch and Signal Company. Westinghouse had earlier developed a compressed-air-signaling system for the rail industry with this company. Now it was officially in the fold.

By Bill Senefsky
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