Skip to main content
Select Source:

George Westinghouse

George Westinghouse

George Westinghouse (1846-1914), American inventor and manufacturer, made substantial contributions to railroad transportation safety and efficiency and to the transmission of electrical power.

George Westinghouse was born in Central Bridge, N.Y., on Oct. 6, 1846. After working in his father's machine factory in Schenectady, George served in the Union Army during the Civil War and then attended Union College for a short time. He received his first patents in 1865. His rotary steam engine proved impractical, but the car-replacer he designed to restore derailed cars to their tracks was successfully marketed.

Westinghouse laid the basis for his fortune when he patented his first air-brake invention in 1869 and organized the Westinghouse Air Brake Company. A number of patented improvements followed, including the truly revolutionary automatic air brake for trains (1872). He also worked to make all air-brake apparatus standardized and interchangeable and later developed a complete signal system for railroads. He formed the Union Switch and Signal Company in 1882.

Early in the 1880s Westinghouse applied his knowledge of compressed-air problems to the new natural-gas industry and patented several devices for the transmission and measurement of natural gas. This work in turn enabled him to comprehend the problems involved in distributing electrical power. An early convert to alternating current, he acquired European patents covering single-phase alternating-current transmission and organized the Westinghouse Electric Company in 1886. The company soon acquired the rights to a new polyphase alternating-current motor designed by Nikola Tesla and thus was equipped to produce power for both lights and motors. Westinghouse successfully advocated the alternating-current system, and in the early 1890s he received contracts to light the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago and to develop a power system at Niagara Falls.

An incredibly prolific inventor, Westinghouse obtained an average of more than a patent a month during the 1880s. Among his most significant inventions were the friction gear, geared turbine, and air springs. He lost control of the Westinghouse Electric and the Westinghouse Machine companies in the business crisis of 1907, but his reputation for integrity and wisdom was such that he was one of three trustees appointed to reorganize the mammoth Equitable Life Assurance Company after its collapse at the same time. He died in New York City on March 12, 1914.

Further Reading

Good biographies of Westinghouse are Francis E. Leupp, George Westinghouse: His Life and Achievements (1918), primarily a personal account of the man, and Henry G. Prout, A Life of George Westinghouse (1921), chiefly useful for its technical explanations of Westinghouse's inventions. Also useful is H. Gordon Garbedian, George Westinghouse: A Fabulous Inventor (1943). For a good but dated appreciation of Westinghouse's financial achievements see Theodore J. Grayson, Leaders and Periods of American Finance (1932), as well as various Westinghouse Company publications. □

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"George Westinghouse." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 16 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"George Westinghouse." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 16, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/george-westinghouse

"George Westinghouse." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved October 16, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/george-westinghouse

Westinghouse, George

George Westinghouse, 1846–1914, American inventor and manufacturer, b. Central Bridge, N.Y. In the Civil War he served in the Union army and navy. Among his inventions in the railroad field were a reversible frog, the air brake (1868), and automatic signal devices. The Westinghouse Air Brake Company was organized in 1869 and the Union Switch and Signal Company in 1882. Westinghouse was a pioneer in introducing into the United States the high-voltage alternating current system for transmission of electricity. In 1866 the Westinghouse Electric Company was incorporated. The inventor also patented devices for the transmission of natural gas. Over 400 patents were credited to him in his lifetime.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Westinghouse, George." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 16 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Westinghouse, George." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 16, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/westinghouse-george

"Westinghouse, George." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved October 16, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/westinghouse-george

Westinghouse, George

WESTINGHOUSE, GEORGE


George Westinghouse (18461914) was an inventor who applied his talents to the railroad and electrical industries. He was a prolific inventor who obtained more than 400 patents during his career, best known for developing and promoting the alternating current power system as a substitute for direct current.

George Westinghouse was born in Central Bridge, New York, on October 6, 1846, the eighth of ten children. When Westinghouse was ten years old, his father moved the family to Schenectady, New York, where he opened a machine shop. Westinghouse worked in his father's factory as a child and gained experience and skill using a variety of machinery. In 1863 he enlisted in the Union Army as a private, serving during the American Civil War (18611865). One year later he became a third assistant engineer in the Navy.

After his military service ended, Westinghouse briefly attended Union College and continued to help in his father's factory. In 1865 Westinghouse received his first patent for a rotary steam engine. That particular product was not successful, but it was the first of many patents for Westinghouse. He next became interested in the workings of the railroad.

Westinghouse's first big success as an inventor came in 1869 when he patented an air brake for railroad carsuntil that time, trains were stopped with manually-operated brakes. Westinghouse developed a compressed air brake, which was later improved through 20 additional patents. This invention led to the organization of the Westinghouse Air Brake Company in 1869 in Allegheny, Pennsylvania. He continued to improve the brake system and developed a revolutionary automatic train brake in 1872. His inventions greatly improved the railroad industry by allowing trains to operate safely at higher speeds.

In addition to brakes, Westinghouse was interested in other aspects of the railroad. With the increasing volume of rail traffic he saw the need to improve the signaling devices and interlocking switches of railroads. He studied European signaling systems and worked on signaling improvements using the combination of compressed air and electricity. In 1881 Westinghouse formed the Union Switch and Signal Company. Once again, his ideas made the railroads safer and more efficient.

Westinghouse's inventions, however, were not limited to the railroad industry. In the early 1880s Westinghouse applied some of his ideas about compressed air to the new natural gas industry. A well drilled in the yard of his home served as the source of several dozen inventions for controlling and distributing natural gas. Westinghouse invented a reduction valve for natural gas which allowed the gas to be transmitted at high pressure but distributed at low pressure.

This interest in natural gas then led Westinghouse toward involvement in the control and distribution of electricity. Westinghouse believed that a device similar to the reduction valve could be applied to electricity. Once again he studied European systems to see what could be applied to his new project. In 1886 he formed the Westinghouse Electric Company to develop and promote the use of alternating current electricity. A researcher for his company, Nikola Tesla (18561943), designed a polyphase system of alternating current and applied it to motors and lights. Westinghouse was one of the first inventors to understand that cheap, long-distance electrical power could come from transformers that would convert high alternating voltages to lower voltages at the point of use.

Westinghouse's revolutionary idea was initially tough to sell to the public. His main opposition came from Thomas Edison (18471931) and his company, which supported direct current rather than alternating current. Westinghouse slowly established a foothold in the electrical industry. By 1890 his company had installed more than 300 central power stations. The first big test for the system came in 1893 when Westinghouse won the contract to supply electricity for the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Westinghouse produced an impressive show of a quarter of a million lights. This success led to a new contract to build three generators to harness the power of Niagara Falls. The success of that project established the effectiveness and efficiency of alternating current power. In less than ten years Westinghouse had been able to convince the public of the value of alternating current power. Soon afterwards 95 percent of all electrical power produced was alternating current.

Despite the success of this invention, the Westinghouse company ran into some financial troubles in the early 1900s. In 1907 the company went bankrupt due to the general business crisis and financial panic of the time. Westinghouse regained control of the company a year later, but could not quickly recover its prosperity. In 1911 he retired from active management of the company, though he continued to experiment with new products.

George Westinghouse died in New York City on March 12, 1914. The Westinghouse Company continued to market the alternating current system as well as electrical devices that worked well with the new system. To this end the company developed many new innovations during Westinghouse's lifetime and afterwards. Among these were the first steam turbine for an electric utility, the first mail roll drive for a steel mill, the first American-built tungsten lamp, the first commercial radio station, and the first television camera tube.

See also: Patent, Railroad Industry, Utilities Industry


FURTHER READING

Berger, Joseph. The Young Scientists: America's Future and the Winning of the Westinghouse. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1994.

Leupp, Francis Ellington. George Westinghouse: His Life and Achievements. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1919.

Prout, Henry G. A Life of George Westinghouse. New York: The American Society of Mechanical Engineers, 1921.

Ravage, Barbara. George Westinghouse: A Genius for Invention. Austin, TX: Raintree Steck-Vaughn, 1997.

Steck, Robert N. "George Westinghouse Meets the Wizard." D&B Reports. September-October 1990.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Westinghouse, George." Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History. . Encyclopedia.com. 16 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Westinghouse, George." Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 16, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/westinghouse-george

"Westinghouse, George." Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History. . Retrieved October 16, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/westinghouse-george

Westinghouse, George

Westinghouse, George (1846–1914) US engineer and inventor. The best known of his hundreds of inventions was the air brake, which made high-speed rail travel safe. He formed the Westinghouse Electric Company in 1886.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Westinghouse, George." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. 16 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Westinghouse, George." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 16, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/westinghouse-george

"Westinghouse, George." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved October 16, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/westinghouse-george