A Short history of Air Brakes

Let’s face it. There are a lot of things nowadays that people take for granted. Hardly anyone ever asks how or why. People have gone from being innovative to just accepting what’s in front of them. Let’s look back at one invention that is probably as ignored as nowadays as the abacus is. Let’s take a look at the air brake.

Since the invention of wheels, man has realized that he doesn’t need to make multiple trips to carry whatever wares or items or other men to his destination. Of course one realizes eventually that wheels really keep on turning. It used to be simple. To stop whatever wheeled contraption one has, he merely has to stop walking. (Cue Flintstones music) Of course, over time we learned that animals can be tamed and we’ve been quite ambitious with the size of whatever it is that the wheel can carry. The realization is that the bigger the load… The harder to stop. There is no way to learn at this point if there was that one particular man who learned this the painful way. But again bigger brakes need to be invented. Then came the engine. The steam engine to be exact.

And whatever brakes was invented at the time just wasn’t enough. Man had to harness a power unlike no other to stop something of that magnitude, of that size. So what better for us to look at none other than nature for this solution? We harnessed air, A bit of mechanics and science, and we have the air brake.

The air brakes were invented by George Westinghouse. It was a means to stop heavy machinery and at the time nothing could be heavier than the steam locomotive. I’m not going to bore anyone with the hows. However, the what ifs would be a bit more interesting. In particular, what if the air brakes were never invented:

Mass transport would not be possible: Bigger, heavier machines would not be a possibility as there would be no means to stop them. Yes one could argue that there might be another means of revolutionizing the brakes. But none could be more efficient, cost vs. power, to the air brake. It would have taken longer for us to conquer the west: The air brakes made it possible for the only means of mass transport at the time, the train. It was the safest way to travel the vast expanse which is the United States. This at the time was only starting to expand. Everyone would probably need to buy a car by the time they start working: Mass transportation would be almost nonexistent if not expensive. When most of us start our professional careers we start with nothing. This means… Walking or bicycling would probably be in: Now there’s nothing really wrong about this… We’d all adapt anyway and be very healthy individuals. But think about it. We just spent 8 hours working nonstop to earn our wages. At the end of the day everyone would be too tired to even tries getting on the bike or walking…

In effect a lot of other vehicles were made possible by this invention. If ever mass transport was still invented it would be smaller and slower. This little forgotten wonder has somehow brought this world a little closer. Hope this gives everyone a better appreciation to the air brakes. Frank writes for Truck Electrics and loves his trucks.