A Car-Builder's Dictionary

Eames Vacuum Brakes

Braking on all wheels of a car at once had been accomplished by 1855, but railroaders dreamed of a brake that could be set on all cars of a train at once. This continuous brake became the dream of many inventors as well. Numerous schemes were devised using chains, steam, compressed air, vacuum, electricity, and even water-pressure.

We all know the compressed-air brake was the eventual winner, with George Westinghouse kicking off the race in 1868 when he applied for his first patent. But Georges brake was less than perfect in its earliest forms, and it was expensive. And as he improved it, it got more expensive. And if there’s one thing railroad officials universally hate, its spending money they dont absolutely have to.

But there was a competing form of brake that was simple, efficient, reliable, and above all else cheaper than the Westinghouse air-pressure brake. It required no pump, could maintain full power even with frequent stops, provided a fast application and a quick release. It was the vacuum brake, and its still (or was in 1978) the national standard in Great Britain.

The vacuum brake worked very similarly to the early straight air” brake, except where the latter used air pressure to push against the brake mechanisms on each car, the vacuum brake created a vacuum that allowed atmospheric pressure to do the pushing. Instead of a pump on the locomotive, the vacuum brake had an “ejector” that sucked air out of the system, allowing atmospheric pressure to push a piston or cause a diaphragm to collapse. This motion in turn was transmitted to the brake gear and caused the train to stop.

Vacuum brakes were patented as early as 1844 in England, and 16 years later in the United States. In 1872, John Y. Smith obtained several patents improving the idea, and his brake was soon being used on several eastern railroads. It provided sufficient competition that George Westinghouse bought Smith’s patents in 1875 or 1876 and produced vacuum brakes of Smith’s design for several years under his own name.

About a year after Smith’s brake went on the market, Fred W. Eames received his first patent (No. 153,814, dated 4 August 1874). It appears that the primary difference between Eames’ brake and Smith’s was that the latter used a piston, mounted on the car, while Eames’ used diaphragms mounted separately on each truck.

Eames established the Eames Vacuum Brake Company 14 February 1876, and began manufacturing the brakes in his father’s machine shop on Beebee’s Island at Watertown, New York. The company was capitalized at $500,000 (more than $8 million in today’s buying power), but was short of capital from the first. {349}

Within three years, 29 U.S. railroads were using Eames’ brake. By 1881, 57 different railroads in nine countries had adopted it. One of its primary users was the New York Elevated Railroad, with light cars making frequent stops.

Eames traveled extensively marketing his brake. To promote it in England, he purchased a high-speed locomotive built in 1880 by Baldwin for the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad and equipped it with his brake. It was shipped to England, and in 1881 appeared on a number of lines.

The Lovett Ames 4-2-2 Locomotive

This locomotive, built by the Baldwin Locomotive Works to make the high-speed passenger run between New York and Philadelphia, was equipped with Eames vacuum brakes and re-named the Lovett Ames, after the father of the brakes inventor. (Scientific American)

But only two of the English lines made purchases, apparently because there was already a British-made vacuum brake available. And it was an “automatic” brake: if the train parted or the ejector failed, the brakes were applied

Eames returned home determined to create his own automatic brake, but found that a New York company with a $47,000 claim against his company had taken over his factory. He sued, but with mixed result: he would have to pay that company its $47,000, but was given back his factory. {349}

After being given back his factory, Eames attempted to enter, but was refused by a man named Charles Higman [Higham?], who was either a) unaware of Eames’ identity or b) unaware that he had been given back the factory. Higman locked the door of the pattern room against Eames, who broke through the door and was shot twice by Higman. Higman was tried for murder, but acquitted on a plea of self-defense. {349}

Though vacuum brakes were doing well overseas, in the United States they were losing out to the Westinghouse automatic. One of the few large sales was to the narrow gauge Denver South Park & Pacific, which outfitted 700 cars in 1880. A year later, the Union Pacific [which just happened to own the Denver South Park & Pacific] purchased 300 sets, also for freight cars.

In 1885, the Eames Company developed its own automatic brake, spurred on by several railroads that wanted to block the Westinghouse monopoly. In 1886, trials were run on the Burlington. The Eames vacuum brake came out second only to the Westinghouse pneumatic, but it proved too weak for long trains, and one of the major goals of the railroads at that time was to increase train length to more than 50 cars.

In 1890 the Eames Company reorganized as the New York Air Brake Company. (Landon says it was incorporated in 1894, {349} which is not necessarily excluded by the foregoing statement.) The plant was eventually moved from Beebee Island to . . .

George Westinghouse sued the New York Air Brake Company, but his earliest patents had expired, and after years in the courts, in 1912 the companies agreed on a cross-licensing arrangement that allowed them both to do business. John White estimated in 1978 that New York Air Brake held about a 25% market share against Westinghouses 75%.

The New York Air Brake Company is still in business, “a supplier of innovative train control systems for the railroad industry.” They have a website at http://www.nyab.com .

Cast of Characters

Frederick William Eames (1843-1883) was born at Kalamazoo, Michigan, the son of an inventive farmer-mechanic. He had just entered college when the Civil War began, and he promptly enlisted in the 2nd Michigan Infantry. He subsequently mustered out to accept a lieutenancy in another Michigan regiment. He was honorably discharged in 1863 and appointed aide in the Revenue Service patrolling the Mississippi River.

[Another source {349} says Eames came to Watertown, New York, in 1861 "to install for the municipality a pumping system of his own devising. That same year, Lovett and Moses Eames (his father and uncle respectively) bought Beebee Island and established a machine shop there in one of the old stone buildings which had survived the cotton factory fire.” One has to wonder whether it wasn’t 1871 that Fred Eames arrived, rather than 1861.]

Eames received his first patent in 1874 and began to market his brake about two years later, traveling extensively throughout the world.  Besides the power-brake that bears his name, he invented an automatic governor and cut-off for engines of ocean steamers, a steam pump, and a multitude of other mechanical devices.

Eames was shot and killed while attempting to enter his Watertown, New York, plant. His firm survived and was reorganized as the New York Air Brake Company.

For More Information

White, John H. The American Railroad Passenger Car.  Baltimore, MA: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978, pp. 549ff.

There is a five-page article on the Eames Vacuum Brake Company and the Lovett Eames Vacuum Brake in Railroad & Locomotive Historical Society Bulletin No. 102.

Narrow Gauge & Short Line Gazette, Jul/Aug 1977.

Sinclair, Angus. The Locomotive Engine; Running & Management. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons. There are 23 editions running from 1885-1915. Chapter XXII of the 1890 edition is (2004) online at http://www.catskillarchive.com/rrextra/chapt22.Html

11 April 2006

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