Historical Markers
George Westinghouse [Railroads] Historical Marker
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George Westinghouse [Railroads]

Pittsburgh Region


Marker Location:
US 30 at west end of Turtle Creek Bridge, East Pittsburgh

Behind the Marker

Wreck at New Portage Junction
Wreck at New Portage Junction, outside Altoona, PA, November 1916.
In the 1800s, America's fledgling railroad industry was growing more rapidly than its technology could accommodate. From track structure to signaling devices to locomotives and cars, the supporting industries were in a constant race to meet the increasing demands of American business and the traveling public. The nation needed larger and faster trains scheduled more closely together. No single technological advance meant more for a maturing railroad industry than the invention of the air brake by George Westinghouse; it was the air brake that enabled railroads to operate safely under conditions that were previously unachievable.
Photograph of George Westinghouse
George Westinghouse, circa 1910.

The son of a New York state farm implement manufacturer, George Westinghouse (1846-1914) began his inventing career at age fifteen. In 1866, when a collision of freight trains caused a delay of the passenger train he was riding between Schenectady and Troy, N.Y., Westinghouse began to think about the damage that might have been prevented had the engineers been able to stop in time.

The distance required to stop a train varied greatly, depending upon its speed, its load, the condition of the rails, and the number of brakemen available to apply hand brakes on signal. A seven-car train traveling twenty-eight miles per hour needed 376 feet to stop. A longer train traveling thirty miles per hour might need as long as 1,600 feet. A train of sixty freight cars traveling at thirty miles per hour required more than a half-mile to stop. Rolling at only ten miles per hour, it still required 800 feet.

In the 1860s, locomotives had manual brakes on their tenders (fuel and water cars) and each freight car had a hand brake consisting of a mast-mounted hand-operated wheel that a "brakeman" turned to force iron blocks (shoes) against the treads of the wheels. When the engineer whistled for brakes to be applied, brakemen hurried from the locomotive and caboose, or their positions on the roofs, scrambling over the tops of the swaying, bucking freight cars to tighten a hand brake wheel on each car. Brakemen leapt from car to car of the moving train to apply brakes until the train was halted. This was extremely hazardous, and too often deadly, work. Men who lasted more than seven years on the job were considered the exceptions. In the 1880s, Scribner's reported that each year 1,000 brakemen were killed and as many as 5,000 were injured, mostly from falls.

Many inventors on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean had tried to solve the problem of creating a power-assisted braking method controlled from the engine cab. In England, at least 650 patents for railroad brakes incorporating chains, springs, levers, pulleys, rollers, rods, tubes, and pumps were awarded before 1870. None, however, worked well enough to warrant adoption by the industry as a whole.
Drawing of air brake.
Engraving of the Westinghouse air brake, circa 1880.

It was George Westinghouse who first realized that compressed air could be used to transmit tremendous energy over distances of thousands of feet, the length of any train. In the late 1860s, he patented the idea, began to work out the mechanics and built a stationary working model for railroad officials. Westinghouse was not, as is often claimed, the first inventor to propose using air pressure for braking power, but he was the first to bring the right combination of components and principles into a workable and commercially useful design. After the New York Central and Erie Railroads showed no interest in his product, a subsidiary of the Pennsylvania Railroad, the "Panhandle" route, agreed to try the new brake.

Now living in Pittsburgh, the twenty-three-year-old Westinghouse demonstrated his invention in April 1869, on a local Pittsburgh-to-Steubenville, Ohio, passenger train. When the train emerged from a tunnel, engineer Daniel Tait spotted a horse-drawn wagon obstructing the track ahead at the Fourth Avenue station. He grabbed for the new brake, which stopped the train just ten feet from the wagon.

Backed by several partners and investors who included future Pennsylvania Railroad president Alexander J. Cassatt, Westinghouse incorporated the Westinghouse Air Brake Co. on September 28, 1869. A distinctive feature of his design was its built-in safeguard, forcing all of the brakes on the entire train to apply automatically if the train separated or if the pipe that carried the air along the train developed a leak, dropping air pressure. Soon, marker the PRR adopted Westinghouse air brakes on all of its passenger trains.
Aerial view of the Westinghouse Air-brake works plant at Wilmerding.
The Westinghouse Air Brake Works, Wilmerding, PA, 1891.

Garish headlines that reported passenger-train wrecks led railroads to equip their fleets with the new braking devices, but the tens of thousands of freight cars in use were another matter. Facing a $40 million price tag to install new brakes on freight cars, railroads fought the changeover for decades-as brakemen continued to be injured and to die at alarming rates. In 1893, Congress passed the Safety Appliance Act, mandating the use of air brakes and automatic knuckle couplers on all rolling stock used in inter-railroad service. The railroads then dragged their heels, pleading poverty in the face of equipping large fleets, and the deadline for compliance was extended twice. By 1905, some 89,000 locomotives and two million freight and passenger cars marker were equipped with Westinghouse's invention.

Following his triumph with the airbrake, Westinghouse in 1879 developed automatic signaling devices, another major breakthrough in railroad safety, to alert engineers to the presence of another train on the tracks ahead. In 1882, Westinghouse organized the Union Switch and Signal Company to produce electrical switches for railroads. The company soon dominated the new field of electrical switching devices for railroads.

Interior factory photograph of Electric Locomotives under construction.
Electric locomotives under construction at the Westinghouse Electric Works Corporation,...
In 1886, Westinghouse, now forty, formed the marker Westinghouse Electric Company, and then engaged in the what became known as the Current Wars with Thomas Edison, a head-to-head contest in which Westinghouse's alternating-current electricity technology (AC), which could transmit electricity over long distances, won out over Edison's direct-current (DC) system. In the 20th century, Westinghouse Electric engineers would make important contributions to the development of radio, television, nuclear energy, and a host of other innovations. AC current would also speed railroad electrification, which began in the 1890s and reached its greatest expression with the 2,677-mile electrification of PRR's eastern main lines (New York-Washington, Philadelphia-Harrisburg and various auxiliary routes) in the 1930s.

Unlike most other inventors, Westinghouse was also an extraordinarily successful businessman. In 1890, Westinghouse built a plant at Wilmerding, thirteen miles east of Pittsburgh along the PRR's Philadelphia-Pittsburgh main line, and there created a model town. His progressive ideas for employment included the nation's first workweek with a half-day on Saturday. Soon, the Wilmerding plant sprawled across thirty acres, with buildings covering nine acres. By 1905, it employed about 3,000 workers who produced 1,000 sets of brakes every day. When George Westinghouse died in 1914, the Westinghouse Empire, with companies, valued at more than $200 million, employed more than 50,000 people.
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