George Westinghouse (1846–1914) 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 (1861–1865). 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 cars—until 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 (1856–1943), 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 (1847–1931) 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
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.
American Inventor and Industrialist
George Westinghouse is best known for founding his electric company and promoting the adoption of alternating current for electric power transmission in the United States. He also made significant improvements in railroad safety.
Westinghouse's career inclinations were apparent early on. Born in New York, he worked in his father's factory, where he learned about mechanics. After serving on the Union side during the Civil War, he received his first patent for a rotary steam engine in 1865.
Westinghouse's first significant accomplishment involved the railroad. By the end of the Civil War, railroad cars were stopped by brakemen who, stationed along the length of the train, turned hand brakes on each car at the signal of the engineer. Westinghouse saw the need for a safe means of braking trains, one involving a single braking system for the entire train. He first experimented with a system involving pressure and steam. After becoming aware of a Swiss tunnel being excavated using compressed air, he developed a train brake that employed an air pump powered by the train's engine and that was directed by a single valve controlled by the engineer or brakeman. Pipes ran the length of the train to each car where mechanical devices activated the brakes. The invention was a great success, and in 1869 Westinghouse formed the Westinghouse Air Brake Company.
Further testing showed some problems with his braking system, and by 1872 Westinghouse had changed his approach. Instead of using compressed air to activate the brakes, he now activated them using a drop in air pressure. The principles developed by Westinghouse to brake trains remain in use today. Seeing the advantages of standardizing air-brake equipment among cars belonging to different train lines, Westinghouse became one of the first to advocate the practice of standardization.
Westinghouse also was concerned with the era's inadequate railroad signaling. Combining his own inventions with patents he had acquired from other inventors, Westinghouse developed an electrical and compressed air system of signals. He founded the Union Switch and Signal Company in 1880.
Another interest of Westinghouse's was natural gas. He drilled a gas well on his Pittsburgh estate that exploded and, after it was lighted, became known as Westinghouse's Torch. Intending to promote the use of natural gas as a power source, he worked to engineer a safe transmission network. In so doing, he developed a leakproof piping system, an automatic cutoff regulator, and a gas meter. He founded the Philadelphia Company, which provided gas service to customers.
Perhaps Westinghouse's most important achievement was to change the United States over from the use of direct current (DC) to alternating current (AC) for the transmission of electricity. The great advantage of AC power is that, by using a transformer, voltage can be easily increased (at the power plant for long-distance transmission) or decreased (at the customer's end for practical use). While the electrical system then in development in the United States used DC power, in 1881 Lucien Gaulard of France and John Gibbs of England demonstrated a successful AC system. Importing a set of Gaulard-Gibbs transformers and a Siemens AC generator, Westinghouse established an electrical system in Pittsburgh. With the help of electrical engineers, he perfected the transformer and introduced a constant-voltage AC generator.
In 1886 he created the Westinghouse Electric Company, later renamed the Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company, which began producing transformers, electric motors, and dynamos. Although the advocates of DC power, including Thomas Edison (1847-1931), fought strongly, they were unable to suppress the widespread use of AC power. In 1893 Westinghouse won contracts to build the electrical generating station at Niagara Falls and to light the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. During the economic panic of 1907, Westinghouse lost control of his electric company and most of his wealth.
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.
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. □