AKA George Westinghouse, Jr.
Birthplace: Central Bridge, NY
Location of death: New York City
Cause of death: Heart Failure
Remains: Buried, Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, VA
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Inventor, Business
Party Affiliation: Republican
Nationality: United States
Executive summary: Air brake and A/C power
Military service: US Army (1863-64); US Navy (1864-66)
Inventor, industrialist, and engineer George Westinghouse was the eighth of ten children born to an American toolmaker and his wife. He served in the Union Army and Navy during the American Civil War, then attended Union College but only for about three months. He dropped out in 1865, after filing a patent for his first invention, a rotary steam engine that was only modestly successful. He then spent several years working in his father's machine shop, making slight improvements in various areas of railroad technology, and inventing a machine that put derailed rail cars back on their tracks.
He found great success with the air brake, invented in 1868, using compressed air as the operating medium and slowing the wheels all along a train's length. This was a revolutionary improvement over the earlier system of train braking, which required a brakeman's manual pressure and physical presence in each car. The air brake allowed longer trains to be run at faster speeds, and greatly improved safety with a fail-safe mechanism that brought the train to a tidy stop if the brake-lines were depressurized or broken. He founded Westinghouse Air Brake Company (now Wabtec) in 1869, and within a few years he was a millionaire.
Now a full-time inventor and businessman, Westinghouse made numerous improvements to railroad track, switch, and circuitry and signalling systems, and founded the Union Switch and Signal Company in 1881 (which was absorbed into Wabtec in 1917). He drilled four natural gas wells on the sprawling grounds of his Pittsburgh estate, as much to familiarize himself with the technology as to extract gas. He soon invented a pressure-adjustment mechanism that allowed gas to be transmitted at great pressure over long distances, and then reduced to low pressure near distribution points. Curiously, this was analogous to Westinghouse's subsequent success with alternating current (A/C) electricity.
In 1886 he formed Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company (now CBS and Viacom) and soon licensed the related patents of Nikola Tesla, the inventor of A/C. Westinghouse developed A/C while Thomas Edison developed and promoted the rival direct current (D/C) system, and their competition became known as "the war of currents". Each methodology had its strong and weak points, but D/C had been better publicized before Westinghouse got into the business, and while electricity was new to most Americans it was synonymous with D/C. On the other hand, A/C had a key technological advantage ó its voltage could be transmitted at a low power, then amplified to a higher level by means of a transformer at or near the user's location. In simplified terms, this meant that an A/C infrastructure would require fewer and larger power plants, while D/C would need more and smaller generating facilities, located closer to the customers' homes and factories.
In Westinghouse's mind, A/C was the system that made economic sense, but the battle between Westinghouse and Edison took more than a decade to play out. A deciding factor came with the 1893 World Columbian Exposition, an enormous short-term tourist attraction and scientific and commercial showcase in Chicago, lit largely and to glorious visual effect by Westinghouse. After the World's Fair, his company was granted a contract to build three hydroelectric power plants at Niagara Falls, New York. After opening in 1895 these plants soon supplied power to Buffalo, a city some twenty miles away ó a distance that would have been nearly impossible for D/C transmission. With that success A/C became America's dominant power source, though Edison spent many more years trying to discredit Westinghouse and A/C.
Though he lost control of his electric company and much of his vast fortune in the economic Panic of 1907, Westinghouse probably deserves as much credit for his business skills as his engineering and inventing accomplishments. At one point he was the President of 34 firms concurrently, with some 50,000 employees and offices and factories across America, Europe, and the civilized world. The scope of his financial empire was easy to overlook, as he named many of his companies not for himself but for his employees, the inventors and engineers who designed the assorted dynamos, meters, voltage regulators, and transformers that kept electricity humming. He offered employees a pension plan and relatively good wages, with sick leave and paid recuperation time after on-the-job accidents when neither was required by law. Andrew Carnegie once said that "Westinghouse could have made a lot more money during his lifetime if he hadnít treated his workers so well".
He officially retired in 1909 but continued working in the private laboratory on his estate, and remained a familiar presence at his numerous businesses until about 1911, when his health began to fail. He was confined to a wheelchair with a weakened heart for the last few years of his life, and died in 1914 with some 360 patents in his name. His Pittsburgh mansion and estate, dubbed "Solitude" by Westinghouse and his wife, was bequeathed to their only son, who sold the property to the Engineers Society of Western Pennsylvania four years later. The group then demolished the house and created what is now Westinghouse Park, between Thomas Boulevard and the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks. His descendants still joke that Edison's body is buried somewhere on the grounds.
Father: George Westinghouse, Sr. (machine shop owner, b. 20-Mar-1809, d. 1884)
Mother: Emeline Vedder (b. 19-Sep-1810, m. 4-Jul-1830)
Brother: Henry Herman Westinghouse (Westinghouse executive, b. 16-Nov-1853, d. 18-Nov-1933)
Brother: Albert Westinghouse (Union soldier, d. 1864 Civil War)
Brother: John Westinghouse (schoolmaster)
Wife: Marguerite Erskine Walker (m. 8-Aug-1867, d. Jun-1914)
Son: George Westinghouse III (b. 1883, d. 1963)
University: Union College, Schenectady, NY (attended 1865)
Wabtec Westinghouse Air Brake Company:Founder (1869)
Westinghouse Machine Company Founder (1880)
Union Switch and Signal Company Founder (1881)
Allegheny County Light Company Founder (1882)
Westinghouse Founder (1886)
John Fritz Medal 1907
IEEE Edison Medal 1911
Grashof Medal 1913
French Legion of Honor
National Inventors Hall of Fame 1989
Order of the Crown of Italy
Order of Leopold, Belgium
American Society of Mechanical Engineers President (1910)
American Numismatic Society
German Ancestry Paternal
English Ancestry Maternal
Dutch Ancestry Maternal
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