He SPEEDED UP the WORLD
The Story of a Boy’s Fight for His Idea Against the Greatest Railroad Minds of His Time
By H. C. NORTH
A LOCOMOTIVE whistle shrieked in sharp warning. Brakes grated, smoked and groaned. Coaches jostled each other angrily, straining at their couplings, threatening to break from line and stampede across the fields. Puffing, balking trembling, the train came slowly and haltingly to a full stop.
The passengers, thoroughly disheveled by the prolonged shaking, rushed to the doors and poured down the steps. Wrecks and derailment were not uncommon in 1866; fatalities were numerous; the sooner one got out of a train that had stopped where it wasn’t scheduled to stop, the better. A few yards ahead, the shaken passengers saw the cause of their bruises.
Perhaps no great invention ever had as strange a beginning as young Westinghouse’s. He owed his success to the gentle eyes of a girl he saw only once in his life
On the track before them sprawled what was left of two heavily-laden freight trains. The locomotives, twisted and crumbled hulks, lay like two huge beasts that had torn at each other until death had come to both. Freight cars littered the track behind each combatant, crushed, upended, distorted. From their broken sides the cars had spewed their cargo over the roadbed and down the embankment. A crew of men was already at work clearing away the ruin.
“What happened?” “How did it happen?” “Anybody hurt?” The foreman of the emergency crew was besieged with a hundred questions.
“Head-on collision,” was the laconic reply which seemed to satisfy all comers, and they returned to their coaches to await a clear track.
“The engineers must have been drunk or asleep,” remarked a dark-haired, athletically built young man, his thoughtful eyes professionally scanning the wreckage. The foreman spat and winked wisely. “Couldn’t stop,” he barked.
“Didn’t the brakes work?”
“Sure, they worked,,” he said impatiently, “but they didn't work fast enough. It takes time to stop a train.” And he turned with an air of superior knowledge to his men, muttering something about greenhorns.
IT HAS been said of George Westinghouse that all his inventions were made to fill some particular need; that his constant watchfulness pointed those needs out to him. And now. instead of fretting about the delay of his train, he puzzled over the problem which the accident and the foreman’s words had brought to his attention. Why should it take so long to stop a train? The engineers had been alert; but, in order to avoid a crash, with the clumsy system of brakes then in use, they would have had to start applying them when a full mile from each other. Obviously, transportation would never be safe or efficient until a more practical brake was evolved.
HAND braking, at the time young Westinghouse had its dangers so graphically presented, was laborious as well as hazardous. One brakeman was stationed between every two cars. On a passenger train, when about a half mile from the stopping point, each brakeman would start to turn a wheel on the platform of one of the cars. This slowly tightened a chain which operated the brakes on a single pair of wheels. When the brakes were set, he would repeat his task on the wheel on the opposite platform. The work was dangerous and the result unsatisfactory, for it was impossible to brake the cars with any uniformity and avoid bumping them together. On freight trains the danger was even greater. The brakemen rode on the tops of the cars, where they were exposed to being swept off or to falling between the trucks.
To Westinghouse, it seemed that the wreck he now viewed could have been avoided easily if the engineers had had direct control over the brakes. It was upon a mechanism which would set the brakes of every car of a train simultaneously that he next turned his mind.
Though only nineteen years of age at the time, he was notunfamiliar with transportation. He was already the inventor of a car replacer —a cast steel frog for replacing derailed trains—which also had been suggested by an accident. His invention had resulted in a partnership with two older men who furnished the capital for manufacturing the product. He traveled for the concern, and was at present journeying to Troy, N. Y., in the interests of the company.
Several ideas for such a brake occurred to him. One was a device which depended for its power upon the couplingup of the cars when the steam was shut off. He decided it would be impractical because of the weight' of the trains. Another idea was the control of all the brakes by means of a chain extending beneath the entire train.
WITH the question still unanswered, he visited Chicago on business. Here, through Superintendent Towne of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad, he met the inventor of a brake then in use on that road.
“I, too, am working on a braking mechanism,” Westinghouse remarked, as they neared the yards to inspect the invention.
The inventor, who up to that moment had been most affable and talkative, immediately stiffened.
“You’re wasting your time, youngster,” he said shortly. “I know all there is to be known about brakes, and you will find everything is covered by my patents.”
“A broad statement,” thought Westinghouse, as he inspected the contrivance.
To his surprise, this invention incorporated his own tentative plan of running a chain the full length of the train underneath the cars. It was operated by a windlass which, when attached to the driving wheel, tightened the chain and applied the brakes. Westinghouse, however, considered the contraption impractical from several standpoints.
HIS first improvement would have been to attach the chain to a piston which worked in a cylinder beneath the engine.
With steam from the boiler, the piston could be manipulated to tighten the chain nicely and smoothly. But he soon realized that no engine could carry a cylinder sufficiently large to operate the brakes on a train of more than a few cars.
It next occurred to him, in his persistent searching for a solution, that each car might be equipped with a cylinder supplied with steam from the engine by pipes running through the cars. But this theory was exploded by the impossibility of transmitting steam from car to car without its condensing. Some other power would have to be employed. What it would be, Westinghouse had not the faintest conception.
As he sat pondering over the seeming hopelessness of his dilemma one noon hour after his partners had gone to lunch, he gradually became aware that someone was standing near him. Jumping up, he gazed into the startled eyes of a girl who had apparently been awaiting his attention for some time.
“I am taking subscriptions for the—” she began timidly, extending a magazine which she carried in her hand.
“I don’t read magazines,” Westinghouse interrupted bluntly, still lost in abstraction and conscious only of the interruption to his train of thought.
UT, if youfaltered, only to meet Westinghouse’s mechanically uttered, “Try somebody else.”
“I have,” she said, so faintly that Westinghouse again turned to her and for the first time really saw her.
He found himself looking into pleading blue eyes, gentle and intelligent, which struggled bravely to suppress tears of discouragement. He was vaguely conscious that her hair was soft, and that it curled about a face that was fair. His face softened.
“ Start my subscription with this number,” said Westinghouse, reaching into his pocket and handing her a bill.
The girl departed, never to be seen by Westinghouse again. Who she was, he never discovered. Yet to her blue eyes and gentle manner he was to be indebted the rest of his life.
The magazine arrived and remained unread for days, while Westinghouse busied himself with other matters. Then, one night, he picked the thing up and thumbed idly through it. An article, “In the Mont Cenis Tunnel,” attracted his attention. He dipped into it, found the long descriptive introduction tedious, noted without interest that the country was beautiful, turned another page before laying it down. He read that page
When This Ship Yawns, It Swallows Whales!
The engineers in charge of boring this tunnel in Italy had been forced to abandon steam drills in their work, because the fire needed to generate the steam consumed the air in the shaft. Finally, after experimentation, they had adopted compressed air to drive their drills. It did the work and furnished air for the workmen as well.
FOR a second Westinghouse sat frigid. Then with a shout he tossed the magazine into the air, sprang to his feet, and paced excitedly about the room.
“It’ll work. It’ll work,” he repeated over and over. “If compressed air can drive a drill through mountains, after being conveyed through thousands of feet of pipe, it can apply the brakes on the longest train that was ever made.”
There was little sleep for him that night. The next morning he was frantically at work on drawings of the invention which was to revolutionize transportation throughout the world.
But discouragement seems ever to tread on the heels of triumph. It was only a few days after this that his partners approached him with grave faces and announced that they had serious business to discuss with him. With sinking heart, young Westinghouse followed the two older men into the office and, taking his accustomed seat by the window, gazed miserably out into the downpour of rain. There was a moment’s silence. Then, after a few awkward remarks, one of the partners addressed the boy.
“As you know,” he began pointedly, “our business is almost at a standstill. The sales have decreased until we are barely earning a living. "
WESTINGHOUSE continued to study the grayness outside. The two older partners exchanged glances. There was nothing to fear; they were dealing with a boy, after all. George stirred nervously.
“The sales have decreased through no fault of mine—nor of the replacer,” he replied moodily. “Because the frog is made of cast steel, it holds up so well that the railroads seldom reorder.”
“Exactly what we were talking over before you came in,” and again the older partners’ eyes met.
“And you suggest?” asked George, growing suspicious.
“Well, our profits are too small to split three ways. We suggest that you buy us out.”
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“I can’t buy you out, and you know it,” replied Westinghouse hotly. “What next?”
“ Then,” coming to the real point, “ we propose that you retire.”
“And what do you offer for my patents ? ^
“Nothing!” retorted the other. “We take the patents in return for our capital.”
“ You do not! ” shouted George, snatching up his hat. “I’m through with you and the business! But remember,” he was standing in the door now, “if you use my patents, I’ll collect every cent coming to me!”
With that he slammed the door behind him and rushed out into the rain. He was without a job, without money, even without a home for his young bride.
THE acts of George Westinghouse were always characterized by resourcefulness and imagination. He at once went to Pittsburgh, where he made arrangements with Anderson & Cook, a steel concern, to manufacture his replacement frog. He was hired by them as a traveling salesman. It wras while inquiring his way to the plant that he became acquainted with Ralph Baggaley, general manager of a foundry there. They became warm friends.
In the meantime Westinghouse had filed his application in Washington for a patent on his air brake, and lie now proceeded to present his drawings to every railroad executive whom he encountered.
Its reception was discouraging. One officer would listen attentively, agree with everything, and return the verdict, “ Not interested.” Another would be too busy to hear the full explanation. Others were more amused than concerned. Cornelius Vanderbilt heard the whole thing through, but in his blunt manner pronounced the air brake “visionary,” not worth the time and money for investigation.
Upon Baggaley’s suggestion, when he confided in him his dream, Westinghouse wrote to his father for money to give the brake a trial. But the older Westinghouse refused flatly. It was also on Baggaley’s instigation that the plans of the air brake were submitted to an expert for his opinion. The expert pronounced the project ridiculous and utterly hopeless.
“ T T 7ELL, what are we going to do VV about it?” asked Westinghouse. “Just this,” answeredBaggaley, and he tore the report into bits, hurled them into the grate, and watched the flames curl about them. “ From now on we stop wasting time with paper plans and get to work on an actual model of the brake that can be tested by the first one who will give us a chance to test it.”
So, with Baggaley’s backing, Westinghouse built his machine as carefully as if all the railroads in the country w ere waiting to equip their trains with it. The mechanism complete, he again approached the railroad officers, and again he found only discouragement. They already had brakes that seemed to them as satisfactory as need be, and a trial of the new one would be expensive. (Continued on page 133)
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Thus it fared until the fall of 1868. Then Robert Pitcairn of the Pennsylvania Railroad looked at the brake, had his superintendent examine it, who in turn brought Andrew J. Cassatt. They became enthusiastic. They were willing to furnish a train—but—could the inventor bear the expense of a demonstration? The inventor could not. Well, then, the railroad men woidd have to deliberate further. All was gloomy again.
And then, when the spirits.of the young men were lowest, came W. W. Card of the Panhandle.
“I have heard,” lie announced, “that you have invented a wonderful brake.”
WESTINGHOUSE nearly fainted. So used was he to the evasions and suave courtesy of railroad managers that he could scarcely comprehend this straightforward manner. Card meant business. He had faith in the invention, and he tried to convince his company that it should make a test at its own expense. The best he could do, however, was to get an order from the president for a train to be used by Westinghouse for an experimental trip.
The offer was virtually the same as Pitcairn’s, but Westinghouse and Baggaley accepted rather than delay any longer.
The train assigned them was soon equipped, for the apparatus itself was already built. The morning of the trial arrived. Four cars had been hitched behind the locomotive. In the fourth rode officers of the company and others invited.
The demonstration train drew out of the Panhandle station and passed slowly through a tunnel. Then Tate, the engineer, increased the speed to about thirty miles an hour. Arrangements had been made to keep the crossings clear until the trial train had passed; so Tate turned to the mechanism for another inspection. In the instant that his eyes left the road a truckman, thinking that he could beat the engine to the crossing ahead, made a wild dash for the tracks. Tate’s eyes returned to the road just as the frightened horses plunged madly and the driver was hurled in the path of the speeding train.
TATE grasped the brake control and twisted insanely. With a mighty lurch the train stopped dead.
Picking themselves from the floor, the passengers in the rear car scrambled to the platforms and sprang to the ground. They found Tate assisting the terrorstricken truckman to arise—four feet from the cowcatcher.
So bruised and ruffled were the witnesses, that the significance of the event was slow in dawning. And then they comprehended. In saving a human life, the air brake had demonstrated its own efficiency!
Although George Westinghouse patented over 400 inventions before he died, his fame will always rest on the air brake. That was the foundation for the life of great achievement which followed—for it was through his vision, too, that alternating current, which gave us cheap electricity, was developed.