George Westinghouse Jr. (October 6, 1846 – March 12, 1914) was an American entrepreneur and engineer based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania who invented the railway air brake and was a pioneer of the electrical industry, gaining his first patent at the age of 19. Westinghouse saw the potential in alternating current as an electricity distribution system in the early 1880s and put all his resources into developing and marketing it, a move that put his business in direct competition with the Edison direct current system. In 1911 Westinghouse received the AIEE's Edison Medal "For meritorious achievement in connection with the development of the alternating current system."
George Westinghouse was born in 1846 in Central Bridge, New York, the son of Emeline (Vedder) and George Westinghouse, Sr., a machine shop owner. From his youth, he was talented at machinery and business. At the age of fifteen, as the Civil War broke out, Westinghouse enlisted in the New York National Guard and served until his parents urged him to return home. In April 1863 he persuaded his parents to allow him to re-enlist, whereupon he joined Company M of the 16th New York Cavalry and earned promotion to the rank of corporal. In December 1864 he resigned from the Army to join the Navy, serving as Acting Third Assistant Engineer on the gunboat USS Muscoota through the end of the war. After his military discharge in August 1865, he returned to his family in Schenectady and enrolled at Union College. However, he lost interest in the curriculum and dropped out in his first term there.
Westinghouse was 19 years old when he created his first invention, the rotary steam engine. He also devised the Westinghouse Farm Engine. At age 21 he invented a "car replacer", a device to guide derailed railroad cars back onto the tracks, and a reversible frog, a device used with a railroad switch to guide trains onto one of two tracks.
At about this time, he witnessed a train wreck where two engineers saw one another, but were unable to stop their trains in time using the existing brakes. Brakemen had to run from car to car, on catwalks atop the cars, applying the brakes manually on each car.
In 1869, at age 22, Westinghouse invented a railroad braking system using compressed air. The Westinghouse system used a compressor on the locomotive, a reservoir and a special valve on each car, and a single pipe running the length of the train (with flexible connections) which both refilled the reservoirs and controlled the brakes, allowing the engineer to apply and release the brakes simultaneously on all cars. It is a failsafe system, in that any rupture or disconnection in the train pipe will apply the brakes throughout the train. It was patented by Westinghouse on October 28, 1873. The Westinghouse Air Brake Company (WABCO) was subsequently organized to manufacture and sell Westinghouse's invention. It was in time nearly universally adopted by railways. Modern trains use brakes in various forms based on this design. The same conceptual design of fail-safe air brake is also found on heavy trucks.
Westinghouse pursued many improvements in railway signals (which then used oil lamps). In 1881 he founded the Union Switch and Signal Company to manufacture his signaling and switching inventions.
Westinghouse's interests in gas distribution and telephone switching led him to become interested in the then new field of electrical power distribution in the early 1880s. Electric lighting was a growing business with many companies building outdoor direct current (DC) and alternating current (AC) arc lighting based street lighting systems and Thomas Edison launching the first DC electric utility designed to light homes and businesses with his patented incandescent bulb. In 1884 Westinghouse started developing his own DC domestic lighting system and hired physicist William Stanley to work on it. Westinghouse became aware of the new European alternating current systems in 1885 when he read about them in the UK technical journal Engineering. AC had the ability to be "stepped up" in voltage by a transformer for distribution long distances and then "stepped down" by a transformer for consumer use allowing large centralized power plants to supply electricity long distance in cities with more disperse populations. This was an advantage over the low voltage DC systems being marketed by Thomas Edison's electric utility which had a limited range due to the low voltages used. Westinghouse saw AC's potential to achieve greater economies of scale as way to build a truly competitive system instead of simply building another barely competitive DC lighting system using patents just different enough to get around the Edison patents.
In 1885 Westinghouse imported a number of Gaulard–Gibbs transformers and a Siemens AC generator, to begin experimenting with AC networks in Pittsburgh. Stanley, assisted by engineers Albert Schmid and Oliver B. Shallenberger, developed the Gaulard–Gibbs transformer design into the first practical transformer. In 1886, with Westinghouse's backing, Stanley installed the first multiple-voltage AC power system in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, a demonstration lighting system driven by a hydroelectric generator that produced 500 volts AC stepped down to 100 volts to light incandescent bulbs in homes and businesses. That same year, Westinghouse formed the "Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company"; in 1889 he renamed it as "Westinghouse Electric Corporation".
The Westinghouse company installed 30 more AC-lighting systems within a year and by the end of 1887 it had 68 alternating current power stations to Edison's 121 DC-based stations. This competition with Edison led in the late 1880s to what has been called the "War of Currents" with Thomas Edison and his company joining in with a spreading public perception that the high voltages used AC distribution were unsafe. Edison even suggested a Westinghouse AC generator be used in the State of New York's new electric chair. Westinghouse also had to deal with an AC rival, the Thomson-Houston Electric Company who had built 22 power stations by the end of 1887 and by 1889 had bought out another competitor, the Brush Electric Company. Thomson-Houston was expanding their business while trying to avoid patent conflicts with Westinghouse, arranging deals such as coming to agreements over lighting company territory, paying a royalty to use the Stanley transformer patent, and allowing Westinghouse to use their Sawyer–Man incandescent bulb patent. The Edison company, in collusion with Thomson-Houston, managed to arrange in 1890 that the first electric chair was power with a Westinghouse AC generator, forcing Westinghouse to try to block this move via hiring the best lawyer of the day to (unsuccessfully) defend William Kemmler, the first man scheduled to die in the chair. The War of Currents would end with financiers, such as J. P. Morgan, pushing Edison Electric towards AC and pushing out Thomas Edison. In 1892 the Edison company was merged with the Thomson-Houston Electric Company to form General Electric, a conglomerate with the board of Thomson-Houston in control.
During this period Westinghouse continued to pour money and engineering resources into the goal of building a completely integrated AC system, obtaining the Sawyer–Man lamp by buying Consolidated Electric Light, developing components such as an induction meter, and obtaining the rights to inventor Nikola Tesla's brushless AC induction motor along with patents for a new type of electric power distribution, polyphase alternating current. The acquisition of a feasible AC motor gave Westinghouse a key patent for his system, but the financial strain of buying up patents and hiring the engineers needed to build it meant development of Tesla's motor had to be put on hold for a while.
In 1890 Westinghouse's company was in trouble. The near collapse of Barings Bank in London triggered the financial panic of 1890, causing investors to call in their loans to W.E. The sudden cash shortage forced the company to refinance its debts. The new lenders demanded that Westinghouse cut back on what looked like excessive spending on acquisition of other companies, research, and patents.
In 1891 Westinghouse built a hydroelectric AC power plant, the Ames Hydroelectric Generating Plant. The plant supplied power to the Gold King Mine 3.5 miles away. This was the first successful demonstration of long-distance transmission of industrial-grade alternating current power and used two 100 hp Westinghouse alternators, one working as a generator producing 3000-volt, 133-Hertz, single-phase AC, and the other used as an AC motor. At the beginning of 1893 Westinghouse engineer Benjamin Lamme had made great progress developing an efficient version of Tesla's induction motor and Westinghouse Electric started branding their complete polyphase AC system as the "Tesla Polyphase System", announcing Tesla's patents gave them patent priority over other AC systems and their intentions to sue patent infringers.
In 1893, George Westinghouse won the bid to light the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago with alternating current, slightly underbidding General Electric to get the contract. This World's Fair devoted a building to electrical exhibits. It was a key event in the history of AC power, as Westinghouse demonstrated the safety, reliability, and efficiency of a fully integrated alternating current system to the American public.
Westinghouse's demonstration that they could build a complete AC system at the Colombian Exposition was instrumental in them getting the contract for building a two-phase AC generating system, the Adams Power Plant, at Niagara Falls in 1895. At the same time, a contract to build the three-phase AC distribution system the project needed was awarded to General Electric. The early to mid-1890s saw General Electric, backed by financier J. P. Morgan, involved in costly takeover attempts and patent battles with Westinghouse Electric. The competition was so costly a patent-sharing agreement was signed between the two companies in 1896.
In 1889, Westinghouse purchased several mining claims in the Patagonia Mountains of southeastern Arizona and formed the Duquesne Mining & Reduction Company. A year later he founded what is now the ghost town of Duquesne to use as his company headquarters. He lived in a large Victorian frame house, which still stands, but in disrepair. Duquesne grew to over a 1,000 residents and the mine reached its peak production in the mid-1910s.
With AC networks expanding, Westinghouse turned his attention to electrical power production. At the outset, the available generating sources were hydroturbines where falling water was available, and reciprocating steam engines where it was not. Westinghouse felt that reciprocating steam engines were clumsy and inefficient, and wanted to develop some class of "rotating" engine that would be more elegant and efficient.
One of his first inventions had been a rotary steam engine, but it had proven impractical. The British engineer Charles Algernon Parsons began experimenting with steam turbines in 1884, beginning with a 10-horsepower (7.5 kW) turbine. Westinghouse bought rights to the Parsons turbine in 1885, improved the Parsons technology, and increased its scale.
In 1898 Westinghouse demonstrated a 300-kilowatt unit, replacing reciprocating engines in his air-brake factory. The next year he installed a 1.5-megawatt, 1,200 rpm unit for the Hartford Electric Light Company.
Westinghouse then developed steam turbines for maritime propulsion. Large turbines were most efficient at about 3,000 rpm, while an efficient propeller operated at about 100 rpm. That required reduction gearing, but building reduction gearing that could operate at high rpm and at high power was difficult, since a slight misalignment would shake the power train to pieces. Westinghouse and his engineers devised an automatic alignment system that made turbine power practical for large vessels.
Westinghouse remained productive and inventive almost all his life. Like Edison, he had a practical and experimental streak. At one time, Westinghouse began to work on heat pumps that could provide heating and cooling, and believed that he might be able to extract enough power in the process for the system to run itself.
Westinghouse was after a perpetual motion machine, and the British physicist Lord Kelvin, one of Westinghouse's correspondents, told him that he would be violating the laws of thermodynamics. Westinghouse replied that might be the case, but it made no difference. If he couldn't build a perpetual-motion machine, he would still have a heat pump system that he could patent and sell.
Westinghouse remained a captain of American industry until 1907, when a financial panic led to his resignation from control of the Westinghouse company. By 1911, he was no longer active in business, and his health was in decline.
In 1867, Westinghouse met and soon married Marguerite Erskine Walker. They were married for 47 years, and had one son, George Westinghouse III, who had six children. The couple made their first home in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. They later acquired houses in Lenox, Massachusetts, where they summered, and in Washington, District of Columbia.
George Westinghouse died on March 12, 1914, in New York City at age 67. He was initially interred in Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, NY then removed on December 14, 1915. As a Civil War veteran, he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery, along with his wife Marguerite, who survived him by three months. She had also been initially interred in Woodlawn and removed and reinterred at the same time as George.
A six-day workweek was the rule when George Westinghouse inaugurated the first Saturday half holiday in his Pittsburgh factory in 1881.
In 1918 his former home, Solitude, was razed and the land given to the City of Pittsburgh to establish Westinghouse Park. In 1930, the Westinghouse Memorial, funded by his employees, was placed in Schenley Park in Pittsburgh. Also named in his honor, George Westinghouse Bridge is near the site of his Turtle Creek plant. Its plaque reads:
The George Westinghouse Jr. Birthplace and Boyhood Home in Central Bridge, New York, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986.
In 1989, Westinghouse was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
Agreement stayed in effect until 1911
|Booknotes interview with Jill Jonnes on Empires of Light, October 26, 2003, C-SPAN|
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to George Westinghouse.|
|Wikisource has the text of a 1922 Encyclopædia Britannica article about George Westinghouse.|