Air Brake Invention at the Heart of Westinghouse Safety Legacy

April 13, 2016 by Joe Smetanka
Categories: Legacy

In the 19th century, most trains had cars with individuals braking systems. The brakeman was responsible for getting to each car – sometimes by walking atop the moving train – to apply the brakes manually. Tracks weren’t level. Cold and wet weather posed slip-and-fall hazards. Common injuries ranged from frostbite and hypothermia to lost fingers or, even worse, death beneath the train’s wheels.

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In addition to being dangerous, the braking system was imperfect. Depending on train speed, it took from half a mile to a mile (.8 km to 1.6 km) for a train to come to a complete stop. Train crashes were frequent and deadly.

On April 13, 1869, George Westinghouse received a patent for what has since been called, “the most important safety device ever known” – the air brake. With Westinghouse’s remarkable air brake, an engineer could control all braking instantly from the train’s cab.

2016 marks the 130th anniversary of the founding of George Westinghouse’s first Westinghouse Electric Company. Today’s Westinghouse – a global company with more than 11,000 employees – provides utility customers around the world with safe, reliable, cost-effective nuclear power plants, nuclear fuel, plant automation, and operating plant products and services. Our technology deliverables are designed to meet stringent safety requirements, of course, but beyond that, our employees are empowered – and expected – to question anything that could be potentially unsafe. They also are encouraged to point out and thank coworkers for demonstrating safe behaviors. As our CEO often says: “Be safe, think safe and always be on the lookout for others.”

Safety is a vital component of the legacy handed down by George Westinghouse, and he would be proud to know that Westinghouse Electric Company just celebrated its best safety-performance year* ever: approximately 25 million hours with fewer safety incidents than ever before! And we have every reason to expect next year’s safety performance to be even better. Be assured, however, that our goal is zero injuries and that we will not apply the brakes until we get there.

* Fiscal year -- April 1, 2015 to March 31, 2016

Joe Smetanka

Joe Smetanka
Director, Global Environment, Health and Safety
Westinghouse Electric Company