How George Westinghouse Gave The Railroads a Brake

By Alexa Veselic

George Westinghouse

George Westinghouse

A booming in the 1800s, crashes and work accidents associated with train travel were often fatal.

Using an ineffective and slow hand-brake system, brakemen sat atop the train’s cars and, as the brake whistle sounded, manually turned a hand wheel to apply the brakes to that individual car. The men would then leap on to the next freight car in the line and do the same.

The deadly system continued until 1868 when George Westinghouse developed the revolutionary air-brake, which allowed the train’s engineer to apply the brakes to all cars simultaneously using compressed air.

The air-brake system made it possible for the construction of longer and faster trains, and also eliminated the dangerous job of the brakemen and made travel safer for passengers.

Westinghouse was born into industry in Central Bridge, New York in 1846. His father, George Westinghouse Sr., owned a company that manufactured farm equipment.

By his early twenties, Westinghouse had already developed two products to improve railroad travel, the car replacer and railroad switch. The steel needed for these technologies is what originally brought Westinghouse to Pittsburgh.  At the time, Pittsburgh produced about 45% of the nation’s total iron and cast more steel than any other city.

While traveling the country selling his products, Westinghouse developed the concept for his air-brake. After patenting the design at the age of 23, Westinghouse formed the Westinghouse Air-Brake Company at 25th Street and Liberty Avenue in the Strip District.

Westinghouse was not merely known for his innovative mind, but also his paternal attitude toward his employees. According to Ed Reis, Westinghouse historian at the Heinz History Center, this quality is what separated Westinghouse from other Pittsburgh industrialists.

“He had a very good rapport with his workers which wasn’t very common at the time,” Reis said. “There was never a strike, he paid better than the other industrialists and he treated his workers with respect.”

The fact that Westinghouse had only 361 patents credited to him, far fewer than his competitor, Thomas Edison, was due in part to the respect he had for his employees.  “If you were working for Westinghouse and a product you were working on was selected for a patent, then your name was on the patent not Westinghouse,” Reis said. “He believed workers deserved the recognition.”

Westinghouse instituted Saturday half holidays at his plants, giving employees a five and a half day work week, which was uncommon at the time. He also introduced paid vacations and pension and disability programs. Westinghouse believed that employee satisfaction was what truly made a company successful.

By 1890, Westinghouse Air-Brake Company had relocated to Wilmerding, Pa., an industrial town with insured housing for his employees’ families and a safe factory for workers. In the first year, 6,000 workers at the Wilmerding plant were producing over 1,000 sets of brakes a day. Westinghouse died in 1914 but his legacy of innovation continues.

The original factory itself still stands in the Strip District as a reminder of one the city’s industrial giants, today housing the offices of the Pittsburgh Opera. A statue was erected in 1930 in honor of Westinghouse in Schenley Park through voluntary