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Edison Medal; Inventor; Union Army; Union College; Westinghouse Electric Company


George Westinghouse was born in Central Bridge, New York, in 1846. As a teenager, he joined the Union Army in the Civil War at the age of fifteen. After attending Union College in New York for less than a semester, Westinghouse's creative ingenuity began to flourish with his first patent and invention‚ a rotary steam engine. From here, he moved to Pittsburgh to allow him a better venue to foster his innovative dreams. With his most important contribution, the utilization of alternating current, Westinghouse became one of America's most notable industrialists. After retiring, he died in 1914 in New York.


George Westinghouse was born on October 16, 1846, to George Westinghouse Sr. and Emeline Vedder, two middle-class farmers in Central Bridge, New York. He was the eighth child in a family that would eventually number ten. When Westinghouse was nine-years-old, his father relocated their family to Schenectady, New York, in order to form and manage his agricultural manufacturing firm, G. Westinghouse & Company. This venue provided young Westinghouse with his first opportunity to explore the field he would later become famous for revolutionizing—mechanical engineering. Westinghouse, intrigued with his fathers work, spent much of his time at the factory when not attending local schools.

At the early age of fifteen, Westinghouse began his legacy of technological development through his first invention—a rotary engine in 1861. Soon after that, however, he decided to join the Union army in the Civil War in that same year. There he served briefly with the Twelfth Regiment in the New York National Guard until his parents urged him to return home. Two years later, Westinghouse persuaded his parents to allow him to re-enlist in the war, this time with the Sixteenth Regiment, New York Cavalry, in 1863. One year later, he resigned from the Army in December 1864 in order to join the Navy. Acting as third assistant engineer for the USS Muscoota, Westinghouse supported the Union cause until the end of the war, at which time he returned to his home in Schenectady.

With the conclusion of the war, George Westinghouse enrolled at nearby Union College in the fall of 1865. Due to his lack of interest in the curriculum, Westinghouse dropped out within the first term. From this point forward, he focused his time solely on his industrial interests.

On October 31, 1865, Westinghouse obtained his first patent for a rotary steam engine modeled after the design he created when he was younger. After taking notice of the demand for his ideas, Westinghouse quickly engineered and developed a reversible cast-steel frog, a device that clamped onto railroad tracks to guide de-railed cars' wheels back into place. Unfortunately, his current business partnership lacked the capital to fund the development and production of Westinghouse's ideas. Shortly after these developments, he married Marguerite Erskine Walker in 1867 and had one son with her, George Westinghouse III.

Understanding that other places could be more suitable for the fostering of his inventions, Westinghouse made the decision to relocate to Pittsburgh, one of America's most thriving, industrious cities at the time, in 1868. Pittsburgh, a city later known most for Andrew Carnegie's steel industry in the 1880's, gave Westinghouse the means for constructing his rail guide as well as providing the impetus for many inventions to come.

Switching his emphasis to the workings of trains themselves, he engineered a practical, useful method for stopping trains more efficiently than ever before. His air-brake invention used compressed air to evenly and quickly stop trains. In September of 1869, the Westinghouse Air Brake Company was formed to manufacture this innovation. This development vastly improved the safety of the railroad system. Westinghouse supplied the first feasible method for providing this feature following numerous failed attempts by other people. One of Westinghouse's most notable qualities lay in his ability to recognize good ideas while implementing his creativity to make them possible. He ultimately applied for over twenty patents on railway brakes.

With the invention of the telephone by Alexander Graham Bell in 1877, George Westinghouse was led into a new domain of innovations. Mainly connected through a central switchboard, wires were contained in a tangled mess. Westinghouse introduced automated substations, in 1879 in order to reduce the number of connections by routing calls to a central exchange. The invention opened the door to many technological advancements in this field during the following decades.

Continuing with railroad improvements, Westinghouse's attention turned towards the increased traffic on the railways. Attempting to advance the current methods, he provided railroads with signaling and switching mechanisms beginning in 1880. He structured the Union Switch & Signal Company in May of 1881, a system that gained positive recognition by the industry.

Westinghouse's most significant contribution came with the implementation and promotion of the use of alternating current (AC) to transmit electricity. He did not invent AC, but rather obtained the patents from two European scientists. During this time, Thomas Edison had urged the widespread use of direct current (DC). Westinghouse noticed problems with the technique supported by Edison and examined its ineffective nature of transmitting electricity through static current. With this in place, power plants would have needed to be constructed every couple of miles apart—an extremely ineffective situation. Westinghouse hired skilled engineers such as Nikola Tesla, a Serb-American electrical engineer, to run tests on a special "secondary generator," better known as a transformer, patented by Lucien Gaulard and John Gibbs in 1882. The results of this test led Westinghouse to focus much of his attention on what was later called "the war of currents." Despite what Westinghouse had uncovered about DC, Edison and Westinghouse continued to feud about which current was better for the nation.

Westinghouse founded the Westinghouse Electric Company in 1886, established on the principle that his rival, General Electric Co. (GE), founded by Edison, was structurally flawed in its beliefs. Westinghouse Electric was first successful in beating out GE for a contract to provide electricity for the Chicago's World Fair in 1893 in the form of 92,000 lamps and an electric kitchen. Securing the continued use of alternating current, the company installed hydro-power AC generators at Niagara Falls that supplied power to not only Niagara Falls, but also the city of Buffalo twenty-two miles away—the pinnacle of the firm's successes. By 1889, the company operated globally and employed over 500,000 people. Unfortunately Westinghouse's electric company was not without its flaws, undergoing a bankruptcy reorganization twice throughout his term as chairman. The second bankruptcy saw Westinghouse take a leave of absence as head of the company, a position he never sought to regain.

Despite these setbacks, Westinghouse continued exploring new ideas. In 1895, he began working on improving steam turbines after acquiring the rights to Englishman Charles Parsons' early developments of the design. Westinghouse installed test turbines in the Pittsburgh plant and by 1900 he had installed similar units in Hartford, Connecticut. Realizing the turbines' potential for advancing nautical propulsion, the innovation became predominantly used by 1915.

Westinghouse exhibited just business practices. He was a respected figure by his employees for giving fair wages and offering generous benefits. His staff respected him to the extent that they avoided much of the labor-management conflicts of the era that affected his competitors. Other businesses of the time period shut down because of union quarrels.

Westinghouse's strong, highly profitable enterprise faced numerous financial strains. Patent infringements plagued Westinghouse's success and were a costly drain on his electric company, which did not see an immediate profit when first introduced. He sought out financiers at times to help cover the cost of his expenses. His industry overcame both the panics of 1893 and 1907, but not without incurring debt along the way. Despite financial issues, Westinghouse oversaw one of America's most influential and innovative industries in history.

In 1911, Westinghouse retired from managing his companies. Although retired, he continued to dabble with other developments, such as his compressed air shock absorber for automobiles. In that same year, he was awarded the Edison Medal by the American Institute of Electrical Engineers —for meritorious achievement in connection with the development of the alternating current system for light and power.' Afflicted with a heart ailment in 1913, Westinghouse traveled to an estate in Lenox, Massachusetts, where he relaxed for the last bit of his life. The work-driven Westinghouse died on March 12, 1914, in a chair beside a blueprint of yet another invention—an electric wheelchair—in a New York hotel. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia next to his wife. In 1930, a memorial was erected in his honor in Schenley Park, Pittsburgh. Also, two years later, a bridge was dedicated in his name on September 10, 1932, near the same area. In addition to these landmarks, awards have since been made in honor of Westinghouse's ingenuity for those outstanding people in the field of mechanical engineering.

The life of this industrious entrepreneur and inventor ultimately led to an impressive 361 patents for his inventions. During his career, he founded and managed 60 total companies, including Westinghouse Electric and Westinghouse Air Brake. George Westinghouse provided America with an example of determination and persistence in the development of countless practical innovations over the span of his lifetime.

  • Rotary steam engine, 1865.
  • Train air brake, 1869.
  • Automated telephonic substations, 1879.
  • Improved railway system, 1880.
  • Alternating current electric meter, 1890.
Literary Note: 

Industrialist and inventor George Westinghouse based his electrical company in Pittsburgh.

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