Braking Systems History

Brembos can all trace their roots to wooden blocks and levers 10 photos
Photo: Brembo
Brembo braking hardwareBrembo braking hardwareBrembo braking hardwareBrembo braking hardwareBrembo braking hardwareBrembo braking hardwareBrembo braking hardwareBrembo braking hardwareBrembo braking hardware
In the over a hundred years since the automobile took hold of people's imagination, technologies designed to make them accelerate faster and reach higher speeds have evolved with a fury the likes of which we can only see in the aeronautics industry and, more recently, in the nascent VTOL one.
Still, despite the existence of chargers, turbochargers, twin turbochargers or NOX, there are limits that cannot be surpassed by a land-based vehicle when it comes to the maximum speed, be it because of technological limitations, or those pesky laws of physics. That's why some speeds will never be achieved in a car, but are tanglible in airplanes and spaceships, and while even higher speeds will probably never be reached by our species.

Not the same can be said about a rather unseen ability of a vehicle, and that is stopping power. The only limitations imposed in this case have to do with the human body's ability to withstand rapid deceleration. Otherwise, it would be a lot easier to stop something almost instantly from virtually any speed, even if, in most cases, that translates into a devastating crash and total obliteraion.

For vehicles with two, three or four wheels, stopping power of the more beging kind, which doens't live one paralized or dead, comes from a combination of hardware we now call brakes. Whether they come in the form of drum brakes, as was the case back at the dawn of the auto industry, or as discs, brakes have been the wheels' companion throughout the decades, each pulling the evolution of the car in different directions.

The modern world offers a wide variety of such systems today, some better suited for the task than others. There are several types of brakes, and tons of ink, virtual or otherwise, have been spilled detailing them. Thus, our goal here is not to go through all of their features once more. Instead, we will only take you through a slow, slow journey to the beginning of the braking systems and have a look at how these things came to be.

Brembo braking hardware
Photo: Brembo
And we'll start with the one who came up with the idea of fitting a braking system inside a moving vehicle. Oh, wait, there's no one who can be credited with the invention of the braking system, hence our complete (and objective) lack of knowledge about who that was. That's because, by all accounts, no individual person can be credited with the invention of the braking system, and it's advent was more of a combined effort and the result of merging ideas.

As the saying goes, what goes up, must come down, or to paraphrase that, what goes fast, must stop. That made it only obvious to whoever made a moving object, no matter its type, that the creation of a stopping system for it as well is not only desirable, but a must. So this entire braking systems evolution thing is rather more a matter of who brought what to the idea and how did they improve upon one born in the mind of who-knows-who, than who actually invented it.

The early braking systems (even horse-drawn wagons had them) that were used in vehicles with steel-rimmed wheels consisted of nothing more than a block of wood and a lever system working together. When they wanted to stop, the driver (or the one in charge) only had to pull the lever located next to them. This made the thing start rubbing against the wooden block, and that made the wooden block in turn bear against the wheel and grind the vehicle to a halt. Almost safely, and presumably efficiently.

The method proved effective in both the horse-drawn or steam-powered vehicles that roamed the roads of that time, but it started becoming obsolete towards the end of the 1890s, when the Michelin brothers began replacing steel rimmed wheels with the more efficient (and a lot more quieter) rubber tire. The wood block method, needless to say, was useless when used in conjunction with rubber, and something new was required.

Brembo braking hardware
Photo: Brembo
That new piece of tech that had to be devised quickly came along as the drum-based braking system. This tech can be considered the forefather of the modern day brake, a forefather whose offsprings are still alive, seeing how drum brakes are still in use today.

The man largely credited with the development of the modern-day drum brake is French manufacturer Louis Renault, one of the founders of the carmaker with the same name that still spits out cars from over in France and elsewhere even today. This happened in 1902, but crude concepts of the drum existed before that.

Wilhelm Maybach had used a similar, yet simpler design a year before Renault. Even prior to that, in 1899, Gottlieb Daimler came up with the idea of wrapping a cable around a drum and anchor it to the vehicle's chassis. The forward motion of the car tightened the cable, making it easier for the driver to pull the lever and get the wood block still used on his vehicle to do its work and stop it from moving. What Daimler came up with is now called servo assistance (a crude version of it, of course) and that is still in use today, with all the enhancements coming from decades of evolution in this field, obviously.

Wood blocks or drums, these early types of braking systems were all external, a feature that soon, as vehicles became gaining traction are were used more often, turned into a problem. That's because dust, heat and even water rendered them less effective. So everyone felt it was time for the internal expanding shoe brake. By placing the shoes inside the drum brake, dust and water were kept out, allowing the braking process to remain effective.

The end of the mechanically-activated brakes, as they were called, came in 1918, when Malcolm Loughead, one of the founders of what later was to become the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation, came up with a new idea, and put together a four-wheel hydraulic-brake system for cars. This system used fluids to transfer the force on the pressed pedal to the pistons and then to the brake shoes.

Brembo braking hardware
Photo: Brembo
The four-wheel hydraulic system was first used on the 1918 Duesenberg and quickly caught on, mostly thanks to the fact that it made braking much easier than in a mechanical system. By late 1920s, this system was fitted on most high-priced vehicles, and soon after it expanded to most of the automotive world, including the less expensive ones.

As the vehicles continued to spill out the assembly plants all across the world, they also started becoming mopre advances, but also faster and heavier. This posed new challenges, as hydraulic drum-based brakes were effective, but they had a tendency to ineffectively distribute heat. This feature made room for the creation of the disc braking system.

Even if it came to be, basically, at around the same time as the drum brake system, the disc had to go a longer way before getting a place in the spotlight and being seen suitable for large-scale use. First patented in 1902 by William Lanchester, the disc only became popular with carmakers in the 1950s.

Using the disc brake in conjunction with Loughead hydraulics, Chrysler became the first manufacturer to implement the system on its vehicles, starting with the Imperial. In Europe, the system was first adopted by two carmakers, Jaguar on the C-Type and Citroen on the DS.

Brembo braking hardware
Photo: Brembo
Despite its success over in Europe, the system was dropped for a few years in the U.S., as it still required some significant effort from the driver to operate, and that didn't sit well with Americans. It was only in 1964 when it made its final comeback, featured on the Studebaker Avanti.

This time around it succeeded and it was here to stay. The difference was made by the development of the power braking system, which took the load off the driver and passed it to another piece of hardware. By assisting the movement of the piston in the master cylinder, the driver was no longer forced to apply as much pressure to get the car to stop effectively.

The evolution of the brakes themselves has since slowed down. Additional systems though, meant to aid and enhace stopping power coming from discs really took off. We now have things like ABS, electronic brake-force distribution, brake assist, and many other systems, all of which have come along to help braking become as effective and as safe as it can be. Oh, and also easy on the driver.

In recent years, brakes have also become somewhat intelligent, working in conjunction with cameras, sensors, radars and more to help drivers avoid collissions, or at least reduce the severity of the impact. There is no study yet on how many crashes these systems helped prevent, but when the first one comes out, it's very likely we'll all be left in awe.

While the foundations first set in the early 1900s remain the basis for modern day brakes, more than a century later, they still rely mostly on friction to work, all while becoming increasingly effective. That's at least until some other kind of vehicle, like say a VTOL, will come along and turn the mobility industry on its head, making brakes as we traditionally know them useless in the process.

That's because the future of transportation (at least the distant one) will not rely on cars and motorcycles as we know them, but on something entirely different. And VTOLs, spaceships, hyperloops and maybe ven teleportation do not need brakes such as these.

Of course, braking power will still be needed for these things as well, but they'll likely come as other pieces of tech that work differently. We'll get to them in due time, of course, provided they'll get here during our life time.
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About the author: Daniel Patrascu
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Daniel loves writing (or so he claims), and he uses this skill to offer readers a "behind the scenes" look at the automotive industry. He also enjoys talking about space exploration and robots, because in his view the only way forward for humanity is away from this planet, in metal bodies.
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