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article number 170
article date 10-02-2012
copyright 2012 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Will Railroads adopt the Westinghouse Air-Brake? … 1870
by I. E. Levine

From the book, Inventive Wizard George Westinghouse.

The America of 1869, the year in which the Westinghouse air brake was introduced, would have been unrecognizable to the founding fathers. The agrarian nation of Washington, Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin was on the threshold of a new industrial age whose pace had been quickened by the frenetic industrial demands of the Civil War. In farming and manufacturing, in science and discovery, a revolution was already under way, with significant consequences in human thought and outlook.

While industrial change was taking place in the countries of Europe as well, it was in the United States that it proceeded at its most rapid, dramatic rate. Here it was accompanied by a mood of soaring confidence and burgeoning vigor. Whereas in times past new inventions and important discoveries were often greeted by public apathy if not resentment, suspicion or fear, a different attitude now seemed to prevail among the American people. Mesmerized by the miraculous changes that had already been brought about by such inventions as the telegraph, steam engine and photography, the public was willing to look, listen and be amazed by anything new.

How will Westinghouse sell the railroads on the air-brake?

It was in this era of self-confident eagerness and wide-eyed receptivity to change that George Westinghouse introduced his new air brake. Curiously sensitive to the current mood of the American public, he decided from the start that his first task must be to demonstrate to the man in the street what is brake could do. “My idea,” he told the Board of Directors of the Westinghouse Air Brake Company, “is to outfit an exhibition train and give public demonstrations in the large cities.”

“But it’s the railroads we want to convince,” one of his colleagues protested. “Why bother with the public at all? Shouldn’t our efforts be restricted to selling the road executives on the merits of the brake?”

George replied, “No. From personal experience I know how conservative the railroads can be. On the other hand if we win the people—the train-riding public—to our side, they will do the job of convincing the railroads far more effectively than we could ever hope to do.”


After some discussion, the directors approved George’s plan. He contracted at once to have a train fitted out with a set of air brakes, and he demonstrated a shrewd sense of salesmanship by selecting railroad cars that were plushly upholstered and up-to-date, for he wanted the brake to be associated in the public mind with the most modern achievements in railroading.

With George aboard and in charge of all arrangements, the train chugged to Philadelphia, Chicago, Indianapolis, St. Louis and Milwaukee in the late fall of 1869. At each stop it was boarded by newspapermen, mayors, governors and key railroad officials, who were then taken on a trial run while George explained the air brake’s safety and financial advantages, pointing out that it would help speed up railroad transportation and improve the comforts of train travel, thus attracting many new customers.

The tour was superbly successful. In each city visited, great crowds of people turned out to watch the demonstration. Reporters wrote lengthy articles about the remarkable new air brake, and editors filled their columns with lyrical praise of the device and its inventor. Pictures of George appeared on the front pages of newspapers throughout the country. In some of the smaller towns the local bands turned out to greet the demonstration train, for many communities along the railroad lines soon realized the transportation revolution created by air braking would mean a major expansion of business and community life.

Requests began to pour in from other cities and towns to have the train brought to their localities. Happily George agreed to expand the itinerary. What had started out as a brief demonstration trip to a few major cities turned out to be an extended tour of the entire East and Midwest.

Soon orders came in from railroad purchasing agents all over the country for braking equipment. They flowed in so fast that the factory in Pittsburgh could not keep up with them. The plant was enlarged. Even so letters had to be sent out apologizing for manufacturing delays. Moreover, as the first pieces of equipment were received and tested in day-to-day operations, the railroads were so enthusiastic they immediately reordered in large quantities, thereby intensifying the production bottleneck.

Westinghouse Air Brake Company possibly late 1800’s.

In spite of the favorable reaction of many of the road executives, complete victory was not achieved overnight. At the start it was mostly the smaller roads who were eager to install the air brake. As rivals of the giant lines, they saw in George’s invention a way to improve their position. By stressing safety and speed they could now compete more favorably. The big railroads, on the other hand, had tremendous sums invested in existing braking equipment and did not want to junk it in favor of the air brake, even though the latter made the contemporary brakes entirely outmoded.

In addition, the manufacturers of hand-braking equipment were not eager to be put out of business by a twenty-three year-old upstart. So they joined forces with some of the railroad giants to ridicule the Westinghouse invention. They took out advertisements and started rumors in an attempt to depict George as a charlatan and his air brake as untrustworthy. Among the stubborn opponents was Commodore Vanderbilt, who still refused to concede that a train could be “stopped by wind.”

In spite of these organized efforts, public opinion grew in George’s favor. Anyone who traveled on a train equipped with air brakes saw its advantages at once. Public demands to force the giants to install Westinghouse brakes grew, but a few, like the Commodore’s New York Central, continued to hold out.

Then on a freezing night in February, 1871, the Central’s crack Pacific Express chugged out of New York City on its way to Chicago. The Pacific Express was Commodore Vanderbilt’s personal pride. He boasted of it as “America’s Number One Train” and insisted that his personal friends use it when traveling to and from Chicago.

Shortly before ten o’clock the Express approached a bridge over Wappinger’s Creek seven miles below Poughkeepsie, New York. A few minutes earlier a southbound train, consisting of twenty-five tank cars filled with oil, had snapped an axle on a forward car and jumped the tracks. The tank cars had piled up on the bridge.

As the Pacific Express rounded a bend the bridge hove into view. The horrified engineer saw the derailed freight train and frantically signaled for “down brakes.” But it was too late. The crack flyer ploughed into the tank cars.

The locomotive plunged from the tracks into the icy waters of Wappinger’s Creek, dragging the baggage and express cars with it. Five sleeping cars and a day coach remained on the bridge and were shrouded in flames within a few seconds. The bridge, now a fiery mass, collapsed and hurtled into the blackness below.

In all, thirty persons were killed and scores injured in the tragedy. It was described as one of the worst in the history of railroading. Public demands for greater railroad safety were now so overpowering, even the Commodore could no longer resist them. In the face of the Pacific Express disaster, his last-ditch opposition to air brakes collapsed, and the New York Central placed an initial order with the Westinghouse company. Within a few years all of its passenger trains were equipped with air brakes.

General acceptance of the Westinghouse system set in motion a far-flung transportation revolution. The air brake was now being hailed as the most important safety device ever developed. Since the end of the Civil War the railroad industry had been expanding steadily. Now it burgeoned at a fantastic rate. Superintendent Towne’s earlier prediction that an efficient brake would speed up railroad development was thoroughly validated. Accidents fell off to a fraction of the former rate. Train speeds and schedules were stepped up as traffic boomed. All over the land, new trackage began to appear, tying towns and cities together with sinews of gleaming steel.

Ralph Baggaley, Superintendent Card and other officials of the Westinghouse Air Brake Company were delighted with the booming market. Ralph told George, “If the demand continues at the present rate we’ll have to expand facilities again. We’re more than a month behind in orders as it is.”

Westinghouse air brake patent drawing.

George Improves the Air-Brake

In spite of the multitude of administrative tasks which his role as president demanded, George spent every spare minute in a makeshift shop he set up at the air brake factory. Many times, when the regular working day was over and the employees went home, he put on a pair of soiled overalls and continued to tinker at a workbench long after dark. Being a perfectionist he felt there was still room for improvement in the brake. He modified the valves, couplings, air pump and other parts of the system so often Ralph said in mock exasperation, “When the mechanics come in the morning, they lay wagers as to what modifications will be made that day!”

What was actually driving George was not change for the sake of change at all, but rather a desire to make his invention as nearly foolproof as possible. While he knew the air brake was the safest, most efficient ever devised, he was also aware that equipment, no matter how carefully manufactured, could break down through constant use, abuse or human error.

George more than anyone else, felt a strong sense of responsibility for the consequences of his invention. He knew that before the air brake, trains were forced to travel at slow speeds because there was no way to stop quickly in an emergency, and now engineers could open the throttle, secure in the knowledge that they had good brakes under them.


“What if the air brake were to fail on a train going at top speed?”, he asked himself over and over again. The result would be a monumental tragedy that could conceivably dwarf even the Pacific Express disaster. He was convinced that the only answer was to justify the engineer’s faith in the brake by making the equipment so perfect that it could not break down under any circumstances. Yet he also knew that from a practical standpoint this was impossible. Brakes were made by human beings. They were made of steel. Human beings could err. Steel could twist or break under stress.

So George went to work adding more modifications to help diminish the possibility of mechanical breakdown. He changed valve designs, added reinforced parts, substituted improved steel. Even after numerous changes were made he was still dissatisfied.

Taking a coldly analytical approach, he decided to tackle:, the problem from a new direction. Suppose he redesigned the mechanism so that it would be applied automatically if there was a mechanical failure? While studying the problem, George did not take anyone into his confidence for he knew how hard it would be to explain that he intended to build an air brake that would work when it did not work. It was a paradox that no person in his right mind would accept. Yet the pages of history were filled with discoveries that had proceeded from concepts that had seemed bizarre at the outset.

One afternoon while tinkering with a model of an air brake, a simple idea occurred to him. What if air pressure were used not to apply the brake shoes but to release them? In the standard or “straight” air brake which they were now manufacturing, the shoes were forced against the wheels of the cars by increasing pressure, and when air was discharged from the braking system into the atmosphere the brakes were released from the wheels.

George stared dumbly at the model. It was so simple, so beautiful, so perfect, even he was astounded. He analyzed the problem from the beginning, to make certain he had not overlooked anything. The chief danger in the present design, he knew, stemmed from the possibility of leakage developing in the system. If the steel piping cracked or was ruptured by collision or if the rubber hosing between the cars suddenly tore or sprung a leak, compressed air would rush out and the engineer would have no pressure with which to apply his brakes. He would be absolutely helpless.


However, if he were to reverse the entire scheme and compressed air in the main brake pipe were to be used to continually keep the shoes from bearing on the wheels, the danger would be eliminated entirely. To stop the train the engineer would simply decrease the air pressure in the system. If hose or piping were to rupture and a leak developed, it would be the same as if the engineer had lowered the air pressure. The brake shoes would be forced against the wheels automatically and the train would be brought to a safe, immediate stop until the brakes could be repaired. What’s more, if a car became uncoupled from a train while the train was in motion, the same thing would happen—the brakes on that particular car would apply themselves automatically!

Once George had hit on the theory, the mechanical details were surprisingly simple to work out. After a week of trial and error he came to the conclusion that the simplest approach was to mount individual reservoirs of compressed air under each car, and these small storage tanks of air would be connected with the main reservoir and air pump in the engine. It would be these individual compressed air tanks under the cars that would actually do the work of applying the brake shoes.

For this new system he designed a new valve. When the compressed air pressure in the main brake pipe was lowered by the engineer or by a mechanical mishap, a “window” in the valve—which would be placed between the car reservoir and the brake cylinder—would be opened and the brake shoes would be clamped against the wheels automatically, actuated by the compressed air in that particular car’s storage tank.

When the new brake went on the market in 1874 it re-placed the old straight air brake almost overnight. George’s reputation was firmly established by now, and the railroads were willing to accept the automatic brake almost exclusively on his say-so. This time there were few of the doubts and hesitation that preceded full acceptance of the earlier version.

Meanwhile the patents credited to him were beginning to pile up at an amazing rate. The new features for the automatic brake alone resulted in a patent a month. Nor did he stop trying to perfect it. In spite of its already excellent performance he continued to introduce improvements regularly.

The demand for air brake equipment was now growing overseas, too. In the next few years George visited Europe several times, and as a result, affiliate companies were started in England, France and Russia.
In addition, he was gaining a widespread reputation for his enlightened employment practices. One of his major accomplishments at this time was the introduction of a “piece work” system to enable his men to earn more money.

“Look,” he told his employees, “the more money you earn the more money the company makes. Therefore, I am willing to pay you on the amount of work you do rather than on a straight wage basis.”

The result was a flock of applications for employment at the Westinghouse Air Brake Company, for the mechanics found they could earn an average of four dollars a day with George, whereas in other shops two dollars and fifty cents a day was considered an excellent wage.

From his own early experience as a shopworker, George knew that the better the tools, the better the product, so he saw to it that his shops were equipped with up-to-date machines. He inaugurated the custom of holding an annual dinner for the workers at the Union Station Hotel in Pittsburgh, and every Thanksgiving he presented turkeys to all of his employees.

When other company heads complained that he was spoiling his men and thus making things difficult for them, he retorted sharply, “I’m not stopping you from doing the same thing. In the Westinghouse Company I want the men to feel they’re working with me, not for me. Treat your men right and they’ll treat you right!”

George and Marguerite Westinghouse begin to accept their monetary status.

During the Westinghouse Company’s embryo years, George and Marguerite continued to live simply in a modest rented flat. In 1876 he decided to surprise her. It was the year of the famous Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, commemorating the hundredth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Visitors came from all over the world to view the exhibits which demonstrated the latest discoveries in science and industry. As a gesture of appreciation to his employees, George chartered a special train to take them to the World’s Fair for a week’s expense-paid holiday.

It was a thrilling experience. Among the most spectacular displays was the railroad exhibit which contained a model of the Westinghouse air brake. But there were other interesting inventions, too, including a new device called “the telephone” built by young Alexander Graham Bell and apparatus to improve telegraphy by a virtually unknown inventor named Thomas Alva Edison.

One morning soon after their return to Pittsburgh George suggested to his wife that they take a pleasant ride to the suburbs. He hitched up the carriage and trotted the chestnut mare to a lovely section at the eastern edge of Pittsburgh, known as Homewood. Wheeling sharply, he drove into a graveled driveway lined with great shade trees. A beautiful, three-storied white stone house came into view, surrounded by a spacious velvety lawn.

The sight left Marguerite breathless. “It’s gorgeous,” she exclaimed. Then she added quickly, “Are we allowed here? This is private property and I’m afraid we’re trespassing.”

“I think not,” he said matter-of-factly. “It’s ours, Marguerite, if you want it. I took an option on it as a birthday present for you.”

Marguerite’s eyes widened, and she said timidly, “Oh George, do you think we can afford it?”

“It’s our first real home,” he replied tenderly. “You’ve waited a long time for it, dear. So I think you’re entitled to it no matter what the cost.”

They drove on in silence. Then Marguerite said, “I have a name for it.”

“For what?”

“Our new home. I want to call it Solitude.”

George and Marguerite Westinghouse.
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