Friday, November 9, 2007

Stop the Train!

I guess I never thought about it. I always assumed that trains had brakes. Not so it seems. In the early days, when trains wanted to slow down or stop the engineer used the force of the steam engine to provide braking power. But when trains started pulling more than a car or two and the cars got heavier, well, the steam engine just didn't have the muscle to deal with all that inertia. Somebody figured out how to add simple brakes to the train cars. The brakes were manually applied on each car by a team of brakemen who ran the length of the train turning handwheels on each car. Because they had to run the length of the tops of the cars (which had no handrails), it is no wonder that so many brakemen had short careers..and lives.

Even with these simple brakes, trains running into each other or objects on the track was a regular part of early railroading. The problem was well-recognized and various ideas were tried to improve the situation but none of them worked. Then, George Westinghouse got into the act.

Westinghouse was an energetic young inventor who worked on solving the problems of the rapidly emerging railroad industry just after the Civil War. Westinghouse had invented and patented and improved component for a switch called a "frog". He also invented a "car replacer" that helped to put derailed cars back on the track more easily.

Westinghouse understood the need for better brakes while he was waiting on a train that was delayed. Two other trains ahead of his train on the same track had collided. He figured that better brakes might have prevented the accident.

Setting to work, Westinghouse tried a number of brake ideas that didn't prove to be useful. He worked on the idea of connecting the brakes to the couplers between the cars. When the cars naturally clumped together as the train decelerated, the compressed couplers would put on the brakes. Like a lot of logical ideas, this was better in theory than in practice. He next thought of using steam pressure to activate the brakes. That had problems with loss of pressure over the long steam lines as the steam cooled.

Westinghouse was nothing if not tenacious and wouldn't give up on a solution. By chance, he saw an article in a magazine about the use of compressed air to run the drills that were being used to bore a tunnel through Mount Cenis in Switzerland. He immediately saw the advantages of compressed air over steam and set about putting together an air brake system.

Working out of a shop in Pittsburgh, he built a demonstration model in 1868. But no railroad owner was willing to test the fool thing. Then W.W. Card of the Panhandle Railroad offered to let Westinghouse put the system on one of the shorter passenger trains that ran from Pittsburgh to Steubenville. As luck would have it, on the very first run, a horse and wagon got stuck on the tracks ahead of the train and the engineer had to make an emergency stop. The engineer grabbed the brake lever and brought the train to a halt four feet from the horses and wagon. Needless to say, this made a big impression on the railroaders and Westinghouse had obtained their interest.

Westinghouse was able to quickly capitalize his new company to the tune of half a million dollars and presided over the Westinghouse Air Brake Company at the age of 23. You might think that the new air brakes were an overnight success. But nothing is an overnight success, not even an invention as clearly needed as this. It took years but finally, all trains were equipped with his revolutionary air brakes. Congress even mandated railroad brake safety standards in the 1890's that could only be met with a system such as Westinghouse's.

Westinghouse was never one to live on his laurels. He quickly turned his attention to the next big problem in railroading: signaling and train control. Engineers needed a way to know if the track ahead was clear. Westinghouse formed the Union Switch and Signal Company to bring a modern control system to the railroads.

Westinghouse went on to making inventions and starting businesses in natural gas for lighting. But perhaps his greatest achievement was the formation of Westinghouse Electric Company to make AC power a practical reality. While Thomas Edison rightfully deserves the credit for demonstrating the utility of an electric power system, his DC system could only power a grid that was within a mile of the power station. Westinghouse saw the advantages of AC power for long distance transmission of power over smaller, more affordable wires. After a long dual between AC and DC systems, Westinghouse's AC approach finally carried the day at the turn of the 20th century.

Westinghouse was a man who was not defined by a single technology or industry. He was not just an inventor but also a business innovator. He truly was one of the greatest of the 19th century technologists.

(Image of George Westinghouse from Wikipedia)

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