A Brief History
On March 5, 1872, George Westinghouse patented the air brake, a system for use with railroad trains. Prior to his invention, the brakes on trains had to be operated by a brakeman individually turning a large brake wheel on each car. With the Westinghouse system, the engineer could have all the cars in his train brake at the same time, allowing for safer train travel and longer trains. Air brakes also revolutionized the trucking industry, as prior to their adoption the use of trucks in mountainous terrain was rather dangerous. Like many other unsung inventions, air brakes are of monumental importance to modern life, though these vital innovations just do not get the good press that some other inventions get (such as the light bulb, the phonograph and moving pictures). Today we take a look at a few of these “unsung heroes” of the technology world. (Note: Dates shown are not necessarily when the device was invented or patented, but also when it became public.) What common items would you add to this list of tremendously important but little celebrated inventions?
Air Brakes, George Westinghouse, 1872.
As stated above, the Westinghouse system revolutionized the railroad industry and his device has been adopted by virtually all railroad train makers. The genius of the system was including a separate air reservoir tank for each car. The tanks and system are pressurized and the brakes are activated by a loss of air pressure in the main line rather than by applying air pressure, a much better way to ensure braking in the event of an air leak. The drop in air pressure in the main line allows the compressed air in the reservoir to push on the brake mechanism to apply the brakes. Using a complicated series of valves, dangerous runaway train accidents are prevented, unlike previous efforts that required an intact system from front to back for the length of the train, a system known as “straight air system.” The Westinghouse system of air brakes led to the development of air brakes for road vehicles, notably large trucks and especially those trucks pulling large, heavy trailers (such as semi-tractor trailer rigs).
Elevator safety system, Elisha Otis, 1853.
While Otis did NOT invent the elevator, his safety system allowed the braking of an elevator car if the cable was to snap or be cut somehow. Otis developed his system while working at a sawmill and did not think to patent it or try to sell it until much later. When he did demonstrate his device at the 1853 New York World’s Fair it was a tremendous hit and orders for his safe elevator system poured in. His name has been synonymous with elevators ever since. Without the Otis safety brake system, the building of skyscrapers and their necessary use of elevators would be problematic and highly dangerous. Imagine our modern world without very tall buildings! Sadly, Otis died at the age of only 49 of diphtheria in 1861.
Jake Brake, Clessie Cummins, 1954.
As you may recognize the name Cummins from the famous Diesel engines, you would be correct in assuming that Clessie Cummins was indeed an inventor and innovator of Diesel engines and founder of the company that bears his name. He was awarded 33 patents and has held 5 world records for his engines but managed to lose control of his company in 1955. The engine brake, also known more commonly as the “Jake Brake,” is a system by which the cylinders and valves in a Diesel engine are timed to create tremendous back pressure without having fuel introduced into the cylinder, causing the engine to dramatically slow the vehicle. These devices make the familiar machine gun sound you may hear when a semi is going by, especially as the big rig approaches a built up area or is going downhill. The value of the Jake Brake is in the ability of the big vehicle to slow down without using its brakes, meaning the brakes do not become overheated and lose effectiveness on steep inclines, a vital factor when driving on hilly or mountainous terrain. It also saves wear and tear on the brakes. Oddly enough, Cummins Engine Company turned down the offer of the system from Clessie, who then offered it to Jacobs Vehicle Systems, Inc. who marketed the device as The Jake Brake. The importance of the Jake Brake to the American trucking industry cannot be overstated.
Airplane Aileron, Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss, Matthew Boulton, 1864-1906.
As with many inventions, the mechanism by which airplanes are enabled to turn and change direction is hotly disputed by rival claims of inventors. The idea was first put forward by British inventor Matthew Boulton in 1864, but airplanes did not yet exist, and no practical model was made. When the Wright Brothers invented the airplane in 1903, they used a form of “wing warping,” a way to twist the wing to achieve the banking needed to change the direction of their airplane. Another inventor, American Glenn Curtiss, invented the aileron as we know it in 1906 and was sued by the Wright Brothers for patent infringement. While the legal battle continued, the mass production of aircraft for World War I mandated a decisive solution to the legal wrangling and the Wrights were victorious. The flap like devices on the trailing edge of airplane wings are what makes the planes controllable. Using the old wing warping idea just would not work with large, metal modern airplanes. Curtiss probably deserves the main credit for this very important aircraft invention.
Transistor, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain, 1947. (Atalla and Kahng, 1959)
Bardeen and Brattain worked at Bell Labs under famous scientist and inventor William Shockley, first constructing a “point-contact transistor” in 1947. They later refined their invention and were given the honor of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1956. The reason why this invention is so important is that prior to the use of transistors, which are small, cheap and reliable, radios, radar, televisions and other electronic devices had to use vacuum tubes which were much larger, used glass outer shells, and were prone to breakage and failure. The transistor allowed much more compact and reliable electronic devices that were cheaper, too. Also employed at Bell Labs were Egyptian engineer Mohamed Atalla and Korean engineer Dawon Kahng who together developed a further improved transistor known as the MOS (metal–oxide–semiconductor field-effect transistor) transistor in 1959. It is this second form of transistor that really revolutionized the electronics industry. Miniature radios and transmitters would not be what they are today without transistors.
Spark Plug, Étienne Lenoir, 1860.
All sorts of inventors had a hand in developing the common spark plug, a device that makes the internal combustion engine (other than the Diesel types) possible. Names such as Bosch, Tesla, Champion and even Guinness (yes, the brewer) were involved in developing commercially viable spark plugs. Perhaps you have owned spark plugs with one of those names as the brand. (The author certainly has.) While Lenoir came up with the idea first, probably the most important person in the list of inventors of modern spark plugs is Gottlob Honold, a German engineer that worked for Robert Bosch who came up with his variety in 1902 that enabled high voltage to be used to create the spark-ignition engine system. Whether for your car or your chainsaw, your weed whacker or your leaf blower, your lawn mower or your home generator, you probably rely heavily on spark plug technology in your everyday life, though seldom giving the development of the invention a thought. Just try to row a boat fast enough to tow water skiers without a spark plug using outboard motor!
Pneumatic Tire, John Boyd Dunlop, 1888.
You have probably heard of or seen Dunlop brand tires, or perhaps even owned a set yourself. The name goes back to the Scotsman that invented the pneumatic (air filled) rubber tire for his child’s tricycle back in the late 19th Century. It seems the rough ride provided by the solid tires on the tricycle were uncomfortable for the child. Prior to the soft riding and longer lasting pneumatic tire, solid rubber was used on a rim, a far inferior method of making tires. Since those early days, we have mostly done away with inner tubes and have tires mounted directly to the rim, and have come up with all sorts of improvements in tire construction and computer optimized tread patterns to give us longer lasting tires with better traction over a range of surfaces and conditions and a more comfortable and quieter ride. Tires of the “run-flat” variety and self-sealing types make motoring a far more rewarding and less aggravating experience than it was years ago. In this author’s lifetime, typical car tires have gone from lasting a mere 10,000 or so miles to as many as 80,000 miles or even more if you are lucky. Modern tires are even formulated to save gasoline by enhancing your MPG and are capable of withstanding far higher speeds and temperatures than in the past. Drivers today seldom use a separate set of snow tires in the winter, relying on “all season” tires to get them through the snow. All possible because of John Dunlop and his desire to make a better tire for his kid’s trike! While the idea of the pneumatic tire predated Dunlop, he was the first to invent and produce a commercial example for sale.
Aspirin, Charles Frédéric Gerhardt, 1853.
For many centuries people used Willow bark concoctions to treat pain and fever, and by the 19th Century chemists had isolated Salicylic Acid as a chemical useful for medicinal purposes, but not until Charles Gerhardt came up with the formulation of adding Acetyl Chloride to Sodium Salicylate did anyone come up with the winning formula of Acetylsalicylic Acid, or what we now call Aspirin. For the next few decades scientists, doctors and chemist experimented with production methods and techniques until in 1897 the researchers at Bayer in Germany came up with the finished product of Aspirin, first marketed in 1899. The trademarked name of Aspirin owned by Bayer became the generic term for the medicine we know as an effective fever reducer, mild pain killer and life saving blood thinner. Although large quantities of Aspirin can be dangerous, by and large Aspirin is one of the safest drugs ever invented. Hundreds of thousands or even millions of lives have been saved by the invention of the boring, commonplace, everyday Aspirin tablet. Combined with Caffeine and Acetaminophen, Aspirin is an even more effective pain killer.
Internal combustion engine sound muffler, Hiram Percy Maxim, 1902.
If the name Hiram Maxim sounds familiar, it is because the father of Hiram P. Maxim, Hiram S. Maxim, is the guy that invented the machine gun. This Maxim invented many different things, including items related to the new science of radio transmission and reception. With internal combustion engines becoming common in the early 20th Century, Maxim’s invention of the muffler was a real boon to the acceptance of gasoline and Diesel powered vehicles and devices. Maxim used the same technology to invent the sound suppressor for firearms, often mistakenly referred to as the “silencer.”
Windshield Wiper, Mary Anderson, 1903.
Another invention with many folks claiming to have come up with idea or being cited as the “real” inventor, the windshield wiper is an everyday tool we do not think much about unless it is not working. Driving in hard rain or slop without wipers? Not so good! Born in Alabama, this Southern Belle died at the age of 87 in 1953, in Tennessee. The inspiration for her invention came in 1903 when she was in New York on a trolley during a sleet storm. The trolley driver could not see through his slushy windshield and Mary knew what she had to do, working with a designer when she returned to Alabama to create a windshield wiper that could be operated from inside the vehicle. Patenting her invention, she had a local company produce her rubber blade device that the driver would operate by flipping a lever back and forth from inside the vehicle. (This was before wipers had motors. Military Jeeps had a similar system.) If you are old enough to remember vacuum powered wipers that would work all herky-jerky and with irregular intervals, then you must really appreciate the modern variety that are not only electrically powered but come with multiple speeds and even interval action.
Question for students (and subscribers): What invention do you believe is the most underrated of all time? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Claybourne, Anna. The Story of Inventions. Usborne Publishing, 2012.
DK. Inventions: A Visual Encyclopedia. DK, 2018.
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