Air Brakes

Air brakes use compressed air to allow trains to run much faster, reducing the cost of train rides. Before air brakes, train speeds were limited due to an inability to reliably slow them. Runaway trains were a real problem before air brakes limiting the speed and utility of trains.

Image result for early paris train breaking through a building

Westinghouse innovated an airbrake for trains that functioned vastly better than prior braking methods, which were sometimes ineffective and could cause trains to derail. His air brakes allowed trains to travel faster and more safely. They quickly became an industry standard.

The Westinghouse air brake used an air reservoir connected to brakes on each car. The momentum of the cars filled or removed air from the reservoir, slowing the train or allowing it to move faster. Unlike prior systems, the air brake was far more reliable and far less prone to break.

Air brakes clamp down when they are unengaged; the air pulls them away from the wheel rather than forcing them to slow wheels down. Because of this, in the event of a failure the brakes would clamp down slowing a train, rendering them failsafe. In the event of a catastrophic failure, the worse that would happen is a train wouldn’t move.

Earlier brakes were pneumatic but the systems leaked and were prone to failure. Whereas pneumatic fluid once leaked must be manually refilled, a challenge on countless rail cars, air is infinite.

Air brakes remain in use today for heavy equipment, especially equipment that is coupled. Some trains continue using air brakes though many have transitioned to electrical brakes that can apply more measured force. Air brakes are also used on semi-trailer trucks.

While the brakes are mechanically failsafe, human error can defeat them. If an engineer purposefully changes air pressure in the valves, the brakes can release when they should clamp. This happened in a 1988 Paris train accident which killed 56 and injured 60 people.

Later in life, Westinghouse decided to diversify and partnered with Tesla to build AC electricity.


Railroads vastly lowered the cost of moving people and goods over land.

Richard Trevithick invented the locomotive engine. However, he never quite created a fully functioning railroad: Trevithick’s locomotive was a literal circus act, pulling children around a track at a circus.

His core innovation was the idea of a high-pressure steam engine. Prior steam engines, invented by James Watt of Boulton & Watt, used atmospheric pressure. That is, the weight of air would compress the piston and steam would expand it. Trevithick’s high-pressure engine, on the other hand, worked like a modern engine, using the fuel to power the pistons to create thrust.

An early Trevithick engine blew up killing four men. An enraged Watt suggested that Trevithick should be hanged though it wasn’t clear if his anger was jealousy, at the high-pressure engine, fear of engines being shunned, or genuine moral outrage.

Furthermore, Trevithick lived nearby (some say he was neighbors with) Watt engineer James Murdoch. It is entirely possible that Murdch helped the illiterate Trevithick build his engine. Murdoch would have been prevented from doing so due to Watt’s distaste for high-pressure engines.

Whatever the reasons, Trevithick died poor, buried in an anonymous paupers grave despite the impact of his innovation to the world.

George Stephenson is generally created as the innovator of the first real railroad. To this day, standard gauge railroad tracks are referred to as “Stephenson gauge track.” Interestingly, Stephenson worked briefly with Trevithick in South America and purchase Trevithick, who was poor, a ticket back to England.

George Stephenson met and arguably built on Trevithick’s work but also engineered much of his own. The first real locomotive engine, called the Blucher, was capable of carrying 30 tons of coal at 40 miles an hour, an unheard of task at the time. Besides building engines, Stephenson also went on to build the infrastructure for them, including countless bridges still standing today.

His son, Robert, took over the business and became enormously wealthy, the first railroad barons. Father and son are buried in Holy Trinity Church, alongside England’s most influential people in history.