George Westinghouse Jr. invented a brake system that revolutionized the railroad industry. His centralized air brake system proved extremely effective which meant that locomotives could haul heavier cars at higher speeds with fewer mishaps.
In the years immediately before Westinghouse’s invention, each car on a train was equipped with its own set of brakes. Brakemen (or operators) would run from car to car applying or releasing the brakes by hand as required. The brakemen responded to signals from the engineer, but the brakemen sometimes missed or misinterpreted those signals. The old braking system was dangerous and inefficient, and occasionally resulted in derailing or a crash.
Westinghouse’s brake system used compressed air to actuate brakes on each car from a central control valve and put control over all the brakes on a train into the hands of one person, the engineer. This resulted in a system that was substantially more effective, more controllable and quicker, particularly in emergencies. It also avoided having trainmen jump between cars.
In 1869, Westinghouse offered his airbrake to the New York Central and the Erie Railroads, but neither was interested. He then talked the general superintendent of the Panhandled Railroad into letting him use his brakes on the Steubenville, Ohio, accommodation train. As the train emerged from Grant’s Hill in Pittsburgh, the engineer looked up to see a huckster’s cart on the track. When the brake valve was yanked by the engineer the train stopped 10 feet from the cart. This was the first emergency stop in railway history.
At that time Westinghouse received a patent for his new brake system and established the Westinghouse Air Brake Company the same year. He was 22 years old. Most railway companies across the continent adopted his improved steam-powered air brakes when they were patented in 1872.
Westinghouse continued to develop and improve upon his original design over the years. By 1905, more than 2,000,000 railway cars (including freight, passenger, baggage, mail and express cars) and 89,000 locomotives were using the Westinghouse Quick-Action Automatic Brake. Variations on Westinghouse’s original design are still used today.