History Timeline 1860s

Photo above: President Abraham Lincoln. Courtesy National Archives. Right: Lithograph of Fort Sumter. Image courtesy Library of Congress.

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U.S. Timeline - The 1860s

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  • Timeline

  • 1868 - Detail

    March 5, 1868 - George Westinghouse invents and patents the air brake for railroad trains and organizes a company to produce them. Westinghouse would go on to patent four hundred inventions and found sixty companies, including Westinghouse Electric Company.

    George Westinghouse


    Today we think of inventors in the field of computer engineering as the super creative thinkers of this generation, yet somehow forget the masterminds of the past that changed the world in even more ways. In 1868, George Westinghouse would create an invention that changed the railroad industry, manufacture that change, the air brake, and over the course of his career, gain four hundred patents and found dozens of companies to implement them.

    George Westinghouse was born in upstate New York in 1846 and apprenticed in his father's shop, which manufactured agricultural equipment. Two years were spent as a private in the cavalry during the Civil War, but thereafter was when Westinghouse began his tenure in engineering, becoming a Third Assistant Engineer for the Navy in 1864. His college experience was only three months at Union College. His first patent came at the age of nineteen on October 31, 1865 for the rotary steam engine.

    Westinghouse gained interest in the discovery of an air brake system that was superior to those in use. His witness of a train crash prompted the invention. At the time, when two train engineers saw each other approaching, the only way they could stop the train was to have their brakeman go from car to car on a catwalk and apply the brakes one car at a time. Westinghouse thought there must be a better idea.

    Westinghouse worked on his idea for three years, moved to Pittsburgh to gain cheaper steel, and gain financing. George Westinghouse developed his air brake system using compressed air with a compressor in the locomotive and a pipe to each car. When the engineer applied the brake in the engine car, it released the brakes on every car from front to caboose. This 1868-9 invention was known as the Westinghouse Atmospheric Brake; it was granted a patent on April 13, 1869, #88,929.

    Westinghouse began manufacturing his initial device and selling it to the railway companies. The Westinghouse Air Brake company was formed on September 28, 1869 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, capitalized with $500,000. He received various patents for the original design and components, a straight line system subject to pressure loss if the line was compromised, and improvements to couplings and the entire system to make it failsafe. Westinghouse recieved his patent for the failsafe system, which reduced pressure to put the brakes on, a triple valve system with an air cylinder on each car, on October 28, 1873. This would even allow a loose railcar to automatically stop when decoupled. The first railroad to use that system was the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1872. By 1905, The Westinghouse Air Brake company had outfitted two million express, baggage, mail, passenger, and freight cars plus eighty-nine thousand locomotives with their invention.

    Note: The date of March 5, 1868 is a date referred to in some Westinghouse sources as the time for the design of the first patent for the initial brake system. It is unknown if that date was the actual date of filing for the first patent design or just a date within the three year period of invention. Some sources, such as sciencesource.com list it as the date of the first design patent.


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    Timeline of Other Inventions and Companies of George Westinghouse


    1881 - Founded the Union Switch and Signal Company to manufacture railroad signals.

    January 8, 1886 - Westinghouse Electric Corporation founded. During 1886, Westinghouse backed an AC (Alternating Current) demonstration project headed by physicist William Stanley in Barrington, Massachusetts. This system differed from the preferred DC system of Thomas Edison and made use of AC technology coming to fore in Europe.

    1887 - Rivalry with Edison's DC systems increases as Westinghouse installs eighty-seven AC power stations (Edision had 121 DC stations).

    1889 - Duquesne Mining and Reduction Company formed.

    1893 - Contract to light the 1893 World's Columbian Exhibition in Chicago proves to public that Alternating Current system could be safe.

    1900 - By the turn of the century, George Westinghouse and his companies were worth $120 million dollars and employed fifty thousand workers.

    1910 - Westinghouse invents the compressed air shock absorber for cars.



    Who Were Those Friends


    George Wallace Melville, pictured above left, was twenty-seven years old when Westinghouse invented and patented that brake. By the year of the photo above, Melville was sixty-four, and his career had spanned a sixteen year stint as Head of the Bureau of Steam Engineering. During that post, Melville designed one hundred and twenty ships for the Navy, rose to the post of engineer in chief of the Navy with the rank of rear admiral. Prior to those years, Melville was an officer in the Civil War and involved in Arctic expeditions and rescues. The Navy has named two ships in his honor; the USS Melville (1915-1948), a destroyer that saw service in both World Wars, and the USNS Melville (1969), a research ship still in service.

    John Macalpine, pictured above right, was a Civil Engineer associated with Melville, both whom had written a report, post Melville's career as Head of the Bureau of Steam Engineering, on the status of the Steam Engine as applied to the propulsion of ships for Westinghouse in 1904.

    Why are They Pictured Above - They cowrote the book in 1909, "Broadening the Field of the Marine Steam Turbine: The Problem, and its Solution." This was apparently a promotional shot.

    Image above: George Westinghouse (center) and friends; George Wallace Melville (left) and John Macalpine (right), circa 1890/1912, George Grantham Bain Collection. Courtesy Library of Congress. Photo below: Westinghouse Electric Works, East Pittsburg, PA, 1905, Keystone View Company. Courtesy Library of Congress. Info source: Library of Congress; Wikipedia Commons; "Broadening the Field of the Marine Steam Turbine: The Problem, and Its Solution," 1909, George Westinghouse, George Wallace Melville, and John H. Macalpine; Google Patents; "March 5, 1872: Westinghouse Gives Railroads a Brake," Wired.com; Westinghouse.com; Sciencesource.com; " The rise of the patent department: A case study of Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company, 2012, Shigehiro Nishimura.


    Westinghouse Electric



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