George Westinghouse was a prolific inventor who influenced the course of history by enabling the growth of the railroads through his inventions and by promoting the use of electricity for power and transportation. As an industrial manager, George Westinghouse’s influence on industrial history is considerable, having formed and directed more than 60 companies to market his and others’ inventions during his lifetime. His electric company became one of the greatest electric manufacturing organizations in the United States, and his influence abroad was evident by the many companies he founded in other countries.
The hydroelectric development of Niagara Falls by George Westinghouse in 1896 inaugurated the practice of placing generating stations far from consumption centers. The Niagara plant transmitted massive amounts of power to Buffalo, New York, over 20 miles away. With Niagara, Westinghouse convincingly demonstrated both the general superiority of transmitting power with electricity rather than by mechanical means (the use of ropes, hydraulic pipes, or compressed air had also been proposed) and the transmission superiority at that time of alternating current (ac) over direct current (dc). Niagara set a contemporary standard for generator size, and was the first large system supplying electricity from one circuit for multiple end-uses (railway, lighting, power).
To solve the problem of sending electricity over long distances, George Westinghouse developed a device called a transformer. The transformer allowed electricity to be efficiently transmitted over long distances. This made it possible to supply electricity to homes and businesses located far from the electric generating plant.
Brief Biography of George Westinghouse
Born on October 6, 1846, in Central Bridge, NY, George Westinghouse worked in his early years in his father’s shops in Schenectady where they manufactured agricultural machinery. He served as a private in the cavalry for 2 years during the Civil War before being made Acting Third Assistant Engineer in the Navy in 1864. He attended college for only 3 months in 1865, dropping out soon after obtaining his first patent on October 31, 1865 for a rotary steam engine. Later, he invented an instrument which replaced derailed freight cars on the train tracks and started a business to manufacture his invention.
In April of 1869, he obtained a patent for one of his most important inventions, the air brake (patent #re. 5,504). This device enabled trains to be stopped with fail-safe accuracy by the locomotive engineer for the first time and was eventually adopted on the majority of the world’s railroads. Previously, train accidents were frequent since brakes had to be applied manually on each car by different brakemen following a signal from the engineer. Seeing potential profit in the invention, Westinghouse organized the Westinghouse Air Brake Company in July of 1869 with himself acting as president. He continued to make many changes in his air brake design and later developed the automatic air brake system and the triple valve.
His industry expanded as he opened companies in Europe and Canada. In the United States, he expanded into the railroad signaling industry by organizing the Union Switch and Signal Company. In this company, devices based on his own inventions and the patents of others were designed to control the increased speed and flexibility which was made possible by the invention of the air brake. Westinghouse also developed an apparatus for the safe transmission of natural gas.
Westinghouse saw the potential for electricity and formed the Westinghouse Electric Company in 1884, later known as the Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company. He obtained exclusive rights to Nikola Tesla’s patents for a polyphase system of alternating current in 1888, persuading the inventor to join the Westinghouse Electric Company.
There was opposition from the public to the development of alternating current electricity. Critics, including direct current proponent Thomas Edison, argued that it was dangerous and a hazard to health. This idea was emphasized in the public mind by New York state’s adoption of alternating current electrocution for capital crimes. Undeterred, Westinghouse proved the viability of alternating current electricity by having his company design and provide the lighting system for the entire Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.
Westinghouse’s company took on another industrial challenge when it was awarded a contract with the Cataract Construction Company in 1893 to build 3 huge generators for harnessing the energy of the Niagara Falls water into electrical energy. Installation on this project began in April of 1895, and by November of 1895 all 3 generators were completed. A year later, engineers at Buffalo closed the circuits that finally completed the process to bring power from Niagara.
Westinghouse Generator for New York
Westinghouse made further industrial history by acquiring exclusive rights to manufacture the Parsons steam turbine in America and by introducing the first alternating current locomotive in 1905. The first major application of alternating current to railway systems was in the Manhattan Elevated railways in New York, and later in the New York subway system. The first single-phase railway locomotive was demonstrated in the East Pittsburgh railway yards in 1905, and soon after, the Westinghouse company began the task of electrifying the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad with the single-phase system between Woodlawn, NY, and Stamford, CT.
At the turn of the century, the various Westinghouse companies were worth about $120 million and employed approximately 50,000 workers. By 1904, there were 9 manufacturing companies of his in the U.S., 1 in Canada, and 5 in Europe.
The financial panic of 1907 caused Westinghouse to lose control of the companies he had founded. In 1910, he found his last major concern, the invention of a compressed air spring for taking the shock out of automobile riding. By 1911, he had severed all ties with his former companies.
Spending much of his later life in public service, Westinghouse showed signs of a heart ailment by 1913 and was ordered to rest by doctors. After deteriorating health and illness confined him to a wheelchair, he died on March 12, 1914. With a total of 361 patents to his credit, his last patent was received in 1918, four years after his death.