One man, more than any other, made possible the great network of railroad lines that connected American cities and made the U.S. economy a truly national one. That man wasn’t Cornelius Vanderbilt or James J. Hill or any of the other great railroad magnates. No, those men achieved their success because of another man: George Westinghouse (1846-1914). Westinghouse received 361 patents and started 60 companies that had a total of 50,000 employees. At his peak, he was the largest private employer in the United States.
Westinghouse’s path to prominence began with an accident. In 1866 he was traveling from Albany, New York, to his home in Schenectady. But his train came to a halt when one ahead derailed. Westinghouse got out to help other men inch the train back onto its tracks. Using nothing more than crowbars and brute strength, they took more than two hours.
When Westinghouse’s train finally was moving again, he began to think of a better way to put trains back onto their tracks. He had little formal education, but he had a great deal of experience in his father’s machine shop. And he’d already received his first patent for a rotary steam engine.
By the time he got home, Westinghouse had sketched the device he had in mind. His solution was simple, a short piece of rail that could be run off the track at an angle to the derailed cars. The locomotive would then be backed onto the rail and linked to the cars, allowing them to be pulled back onto the track.
Westinghouse also came up with an idea for a new and improved “frog,” the device that allows one track to cross another. He and partners set up a company to market his invention, with Westinghouse going to work as a salesman.
The accident had also shown Westinghouse that trains needed better brakes. “The loss of time and the inconvenience arising from [the accident] suggested that if the engineers of those trains had had some means of applying brakes to all of the wheels of their trains, the accident might have been avoided,” Westinghouse wrote.1
In the early days of railroading, a brakeman stood between every two cars. When the engineer tooted his whistle, the brakeman turned a wheel that pulled a chain that forced a brake against the car’s wheels. He then jumped to the next car to stop it. If the brakemen didn’t properly coordinate their work, the cars would derail. And emergency stops were all but impossible.
Because of the lack of braking power, trains tended to have no more than a half-dozen cars. And train speeds were limited to about 10 miles per hour. But derailments, crashes, and other accidents were still common.
Westinghouse saw that railroads could never live up to their potential until trains had a more effective brake. For three years he worked at improving train brakes. Attempt after attempt failed. But Westinghouse finally hit on the idea that worked. He would place an air compressor in the engine cab and pipes would carry the air to the brakes on each of the cars. The engineer could admit compressed air into the system to stop the train and release the air when he wanted to move.
Westinghouse received his first patent on the air brake in 1869. But he spent the rest of his life improving it. He would receive 103 patents related to the air brake before his death.
“Those who watched Westinghouse and worked with him through the years ceased to be surprised at his capacity to do extraordinary things and do them quickly. They learned, too, that this capacity was not only a matter of intellectual gifts, but also a matter of dogged industry and of power to work fast and make other men work fast,” wrote biographer Henry G. Prout.2
Primitive Rail Traffic Control
Even as he began marketing the air brake, Westinghouse turned his attention to another safety problem plaguing railroads. Rail traffic control was primitive. For a train to switch tracks, workers had to move switches by hand. This system had much room for error. If a worker were asleep or failed to notice a signal for some other reason, a train could miss its proper path and derail or hit another train.
Westinghouse came up with a way to automate the system, using compressed air for the heavy work and electric signals to keep things in operation.
His inventions made railroads safer and allowed trains to run at higher speeds with more cars. This let goods and people travel the country more quickly and safely than ever before.
If his contributions to rail travel had been his only achievements, George Westinghouse would stand as a giant in American history. But he and his companies also found ways to transport natural gas more cheaply and safely. And his companies did path-breaking work in developing alternating-current generators and helped make electricity a widespread, reliable source of power.
Westinghouse surrounded himself with other men of genius, talented engineers such as Benjamin Lamme, William Stanley, and the remarkable Nikola Tesla. In fact, Westinghouse tried to hire only the best even in the lowliest positions in his companies. And he knew that he had to compete with other industrialists to get those workers. At a time when the workweek lasted six days, Westinghouse gave employees a half-day off on Saturdays. He also set up one of the nation’s first workmen’s compensation plans for injured workers and a pension plan.
Westinghouse even built the town now called Wilmerding, Pennsylvania, to house his workers. Today the phrase “company town” sounds ominous, signifying company control over a worker’s life. But Westinghouse made it possible for workers to get affordable housing with indoor plumbing, electric lights, and nice yards.
Curiously, unlike such industrialists as John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, Westinghouse despised the notion of charity. “He was convinced that charity was damaging to the giver and the receiver and should be resorted to only when there was no other alternative,” wrote biographer I.E. Levine.3
Westinghouse thought there were better ways to help others. “I would rather give a man a chance to earn a dollar than give him five and make him feel he’s a ‘charity case,’” he said.
Westinghouse gave tens of thousands of men the chance to “earn a dollar.”
Charles Oliver is editor-in-chief of www.EnterpriseEconomy.com.
- Barbara Ravage, George Westinghouse: A Genius for Invention (Austin, Tex.: Raintree/Steck-Vaughn, 1997), p. 24.
- Henry G. Prout, A Life of George Westinghouse (Washington, D.C.: Beard Books, 2001 ), p. 300.
- I. E. Levine, Inventive Wizard: George Westinghouse (New York: Julian Messner, 1962), p. 136.