Recommended documentary: https://www.amazon.com/gp/video/detail/B004SB1D62/ref=atv_dp_share_cu_r
George Westinghouse was an incredible industrialist who you may not be too familiar with. I certainly had no idea how prolific and impactful an inventor he was before watching this documentary.
Some of you may know that Westinghouse played a major role in inventing automatic air brakes for railroads and bringing them to a mass market. It is easy to underappreciate what a life-changing invention this was.
Passenger rail used to be the main mode of long-distance transportation in early Industrial America, and traveling by train entailed significant risks. Information on the condition of tracks was paltry by today's standards. Trains had no mechanism for quickly skidding to a halt if a coupling between cars broke, lines were damaged by weather or falling rocks or there was another train on the track due to a horrifying miscommunication. There were ghastly accidents in which passengers cars would get crushed like an accordion, making it impossible to identify the remains of all the people inside. Many people were terrified of riding the rails.
Railroads had brakes, but using them was not easy. The brakes on each car had to be activated individually to get the whole train to slow down. To do this, brakemen had to race along the roof of car to car on a moving train, quickly twisting heavy wheels before moving on to the next car. If the brakes were not applied in a coordinated fashion, trains would jostle, passengers and luggage would be thrown about, and the cars might even derail. Due to icy rooftops or sudden jolts, it was not uncommon for brakemen to tumble off the train during this critical activity. These unfortunate souls would surely fall to their death while leaving the passengers on the unstopped train to a worrisome fate. Being a brakeman was a dangerous job that could only be done by the very bravest of men.
George Westinghouse saved us from all this. He invented an automatic braking system that could be activated from within the safety of the interior of the cars. He also designed a chain that ran throughout the entire train, enabling an operator in one of the front locomotives to simultaneously engage the brakes on all cars at once. This invention surely saved countless lives and was a significant prerequisite for a thriving transportation sector. We can thank the transportation industry for making it possible for any of us to walk into a Walmart and have access to more goods than even the wealthiest of Americans would 100 years ago.
The invention of the air brake is just one of many, many magnificent inventions that Westinghouse helped develop and bring to a mass market. His advancements in electrical power distribution helped electrify the homes, cities, and offices of the masses. He helped electrify the railroads, allowing carriers to shift away from coal-fired locomotives. He invented the "railroad frog", a mechanism for allowing trains to smoothly switch tracks without requiring an army of super-strong men to lift railroad cars off one rail and prop them onto another. He invented electric railroad signals, which better informed train operators of railroad lines that were occupied or down, and prevented many horrific accidents. He invented new shutoff valves for domestic natural gas systems, allowing Americans to enjoy the many benefits of having natural gas for heating, illumination and cooking while substantially reducing the risk of getting blown up due to a gas leak.
Some business historians argue that Westinghouse has just as many inventions, if not more than Thomas Edison, if you count all of the patents awarded to people directly working for Westinghouse. Westinghouse's policy for intellectual property was evidently different from Edison's. Edison put his name on the patent of everything invented by people working for his company, as part of their employment agreement. Westinghouse did not even though he often still helped with the inventions (like Edison.) Even if Edison has still produced way more inventions than Westinghouse, Westinghouse still has an impressive record.
Westinghouse had such an active mind even in his final days when he was confined to a wheelchair. Supposedly, those who found him after he passed away also saw that he was sketching out some ideas for an electric wheelchair.
This documentary really helped me appreciate how Westinghouse is a great American who belongs in an industrialist hall of fame.