George Westinghouse was a man whose many inventions profoundly influenced American society. For the railroad industry, his principal innovation was the air-brake, although he is also credited with adapting alternating-current (“AC”) electricity to the railroad industry and developing a system of interlocking signalling.
Born in 1846, George Westinghouse was raised in central New York state where his father owned a farm equipment manufacturing factory. He served in the Union army at age 17 and then briefly attended college, but returned to his father’s machine shop for his continuing education. Westinghouse invented a rotary engine and received his first patent at the age of nineteen.
Westinghouse’s early inventions were inspired by insights gained when riding the railroads. His highly successful brake system idea came from watching brakemen leap from car to car to set each brake individually. Westinghouse received a patent for his new braking system in 1869. Its first test, three years later, was a resounding success. A test run of one locomotive and four passenger cars halted at the assigned stations and then, dramatically, ground to a sudden unscheduled stop when the engineer spotted a horse and cart stuck on the tracks!
Westinghouse went on to other inventions, gaining more than 350 patents and establishing other companies to manufacture his inventions, such as Westinghouse Electric, Union Switch and Signal, and the Allegheny County Light Company.