Who Was George Westinghouse?
George Westinghouse was one of the most prolific inventors and businessmen of the Industrial Revolution. After serving in the Union Army and Navy, he patented several devices, particularly for railroads. He would eventually start the Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company to improve alternating current (AC) power generators.
Born on October 6, 1846 in Central Bridge, New York, Westinghouse was the eighth child of Emeline Vedder and George Westinghouse Sr. After the family moved to Schenectady, New York, where Westinghouse Sr. opened his machinery shop, a young George would spend his time there and develop a keen interest in steam engines. However, the Civil War forced George to put his experiments on hold, and he served in the Union Army and later, as an assistant engineer for the Navy. Although he tried his hand at college, he dropped out just months later in 1865 when he received his first patent for a rotary steam engine invention.
George Westinghouse Inventions
Westinghouse's major contributions started with inventions revolving around railroad safety, most notably his compressed air brake system (patented in 1869) that functioned as a fail-safe to halt trains. Westinghouse's air brake was a replacement for the troublesome manual braking method and eventually became a standard of safety not only in America but also in Canada and Europe.
After establishing the Westinghouse Air Brake Company, Westinghouse turned to improve rail signaling devices through the formation of the Union Switch and Signal Company. He also invented a rotary steam engine, which helped derailed freight trains get back onto their tracks, as well as a "frog" device that allowed trains to travel across connecting rails.
Adopting Alternating Current
Westinghouse's interest in alternating current technology came after working on natural gas control and distribution projects, in which he invented a valve that helped take high-pressure gas and bring it down to low-pressure use. From that experience, he turned his attention to electricity, believing that a similar approach could distribute power for widespread use.
Confident that developing alternating current (AC) technology — converting high voltage to low through a transformer — was the way of the future, Westinghouse founded the Westinghouse Electric Company in 1886. It was a bold move, considering many heavy investors in the power industry, namely competitor Thomas Edison, were championing the direct current system.
Edison and his supporters waged a smear campaign against the AC system, telling the public that it was dangerous and a health hazard. The fierce competition between Edison and Westinghouse over electricity spilled into a legal battle called The Seven Years War. Still, Westinghouse had the upper hand and ultimately proved AC was the better technology: He not only bought Nikola Tesla's AC technology patents in 1888 and convinced Tesla to work for him, but he also laid out the case for its safety when, in 1893, he lit up the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago using his AC generator. Not long after, Westinghouse's company won the bid to build a large-scale generator system that would use the water power of Niagara Falls and convert it into electrical energy for multiple purposes.
Although Westinghouse's business empire prospered for years, a disastrous financial panic in 1907 forced the inventor to cut all ties to it by 1911. It was then that his health took a turn for the worse. Suffering from heart problems, he died on March 12, 1914.
In his lifetime, Westinghouse held over 300 patents and 60 companies. Within a decade of founding the Westinghouse Electric Company in 1886, the inventor would accrue a company net worth of $120 million, 50,000 workers on his payroll and manufacturing entities throughout the United States, Canada and Europe.
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