George Westinghouse: The Man Who Electrified the United States

George Westinghouse served his country in war and in peace. He would grow to become one of the world's most important inventors and industrialists.
Christopher McFadden

George Westinghouse, the man, the legend. George was born on the 6th of October 1846 in New York. After a little stint in the Union Army and Navy during the civil war, Westinghouse patented a few devices, and some of them were critical to the railroad industry. He would eventually go on to form the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company.  

Westinghouse was one of the most influential and fondly remembered engineers, inventors and businessman of all time. Without this man's labors, America and perhaps the world would be a very different place. Nikola Tesla might have helped a bit.

We will take a brief look at this man's incredible life and his contributions to our modern world. 

Early years

Little George Westinghouse was born on October the 6th, 1846, in Central Bridge, New York. He was the son of Emeline Vedder and his father George Washington Senior. George's dad just so happened to be a machine shop owner. 

From a very young age, Westinghouse showed a talent for machinery and business. Following in his father's footsteps seemed inevitable for the young Westinghouse. When George Westinghouse was 15, America was plunged into civil war and Westinghouse was forced to pick sides.

He signed up with the New York National Guard and served until he was persuaded by his parents to come home. Westinghouse re-enlisted again in 1863, joining Company M of the 16th New York Cavalry. He was quickly promoted to the rank of Corporal. 

The following year, George would resign his commission in the Army and join the Navy. He would serve as the Acting Third Assistant Engineer on the gunboat USS Muscoota until the conclusion of the war.

George Westinghouse: The Man Who Electrified the United States
An envelope of a letter from Westinghouse's dad, postmarked 11th June 1865. Source: AmericanHistory

George Westinghouse's time in the civil war

As George's father wrote the letter contained in the envelope above, the civil war was coming to an end. Robert E. Lee had surrendered to the Ulysses S. Grant about two months before. Sporadic fighting was still going on west of the Mississipi. Abraham Lincoln's assassination was still raw in the North.  

George Westinghouse: The Man Who Electrified the United States
Painting of the USS Muscoota, 1951 Source: Naval History and Heritage Command

The Muscoota entered serve in January of 1865. In May of 1865, The Muscoota was dispatched to Key West as the Navy attempted to block Jefferson Davis' escape from the country. When this letter was received by George, Davis had already been captured. 

George received his military discharge in 1865. He returned to his family in Schenectady and enrolled at the Union College. He quickly grew disillusioned with the curriculum and drop out.

You can read the letter here.

College dropout to Westinghouse the inventor

George Westinghouse would build on his earlier talent for machinery and invention when he was 19. in 1865, George applied for and received his first patent for his rotary steam engine. Though this engine would later prove impractical, he would go on to apply the same principle to create a water meter. 

By the age of 21, Westinghouse had also invented a "car replacer". This was a device intended to guide railroad cars back onto their tracks. He also laid down designs for a device called a reversible frog. This device was later implemented into railroads to guide trains onto one of two trackways. 

George gets married

In 1867 George met his future wife, Marguerite Erskine Walker. It actually was a chance meeting on a train. Marguerite was an artist and an inventor. 

They would soon marry in August of 1867. A union that would last for 47 years. 

Marguerite would dutifully follow George around Europe as he tried to introduce his new air brake system. She would often be seen offering encouragement and inspiration to George. George would often attribute his success to the loving support of his wife.

The couple's first home, Solitude, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. George actually bought the home as a surprise present for his wife in 1871. In return, she sculpted a bust of him in 1878. 

George Westinghouse: The Man Who Electrified the United States
The Westinghouse's home in Pittsburg, Solitude. Source: Francis Ellington Leupp/Wikimedia Commons

The couple would have one son, George Westinghouse III who would give them six grandchildren. 

The couple would later decide to drill a gas well on the estate, which actually proved to have a large supply of natural gas at cheap rates. This actually opened up opportunities for the development of iron and steel industries in the city. 

George and Marguerite loved to party

Marguerite purchased a new-fangled "telephone" in 1886. The technology was still in its infancy at this time and only transmit to a maximum of 20 miles. This telephone would prove to be invaluable for the couple as they would make sure they talked every day.

The loving couple was very fond of entertaining. Their guests would range from royalty to their own employees. In one interesting anecdote, they held a reception dinner for the American Society of Mechanical Engineers at the Blaine House, their winter residence. Sadly, George had been called away on urgent business at very short notice, leaving Marguerite to hold the fort. She quickly found out that more guests were set to arrive that had originally been planned. Marguerite quickly hired a construction crew from Pittsburgh to remove an exterior wall. A tented addition was then raised with the party walls skillfully blended into one another. 

The workmen did such a great job that it was said none of the guests suspected that what appeared to be a large elegant room, was, in fact, a large tent. 

Westinghouse's financial success would later see them buy houses in Lenox, Massachusetts (where they summered) and in Washington, Columbia.

George the Trainspotter

George Westinghouse developed a deep interest in, and an appreciation for railroads. This fascination would lead him to develop his first major commercially successful invention, the air brake. 

He patented his idea in 1869 and, the same year would proceed to organize the Westinghouse Air Brake Company. George would make small improvements to his concept, primarily automatic features, which would make the air brake widely accepted within the industry. 

His air brakes were so warmly received that the Railroad Safety Appliance Act of 1893 made air brakes a compulsory system on all American trains.

George Westinghouse: The Man Who Electrified the United States
Source: Sergeev Pavel/Wikimedia Commons

Train brakes before George Westinghouse

Most modern trains, buses, and tractor trailers use air-brake systems. Car braking systems, on the other hand, tend to rely on hydraulic systems, which can run out fluid in the event on a leak. Not ideal.

Buses and trains tend to carry a lot of passengers or cargo so safety needs to be the highest priority. A hydraulic system must work all the time, every time.

Before Westinghouse, trains used a primitive brake system that needed an operator (brakeman) to apply a handbrake command in each and every train car. This was, as you can imagine, a very inefficient and relatively slow manual system. It was in dire need of improvement. 

George Westinghouse: The Man Who Electrified the United States
Westinghouse's air brake cross section. Source: Encyclopædia Britannica 1911/Wikimedia Commons

Westinghouse's Air Brake System

The obvious solution was to produce some form of mechanical replacement for human operatives. The direct air-brake system was developed to replace the old-fashioned system with an air compressor to feed air through a brake pipe in air tanks. One on each car. When the engineer applied the brakes, the pipes would fill with air and squeeze the brakes bringing the train to a dead stop.

George Westinghouse: The Man Who Electrified the United States
Former George Westinghouse Air Brake Factor in Pittsburgh as of 2010. Source: Lee Paxton/Wikimedia Commons

George Westinghouse would improve this concept further with his first triple-valve air brake system for rail cars. His system worked the opposite way the direct air brake system did. The three valves each had a specific use. 

 - Charging - George's system required that the system is pressurized to release the brakes. At rest, the brakes are engaged. Once the system is sufficiently pressurized the brakes are freed and the wheels are allowed to move freely.

- Brake application - To apply the brakes, the system gradually depressurizes. As the amount of air in the system decreases, the valve allows air back into the reservoir tanks as the brakes move into position for braking.

- Brake release - Once the systems repressurizes the brakes are then released once more. 

If there is a system failure, the default state is applying or engaging the brakes. 

The Air Brake goes international

George's success wasn't just limited to the U.S. His Air Brake proved to be very popular in Europe. George Westinghouse quickly saw the benefits of standardizing an all air-brake system so that the device would work "cross-platform" so that lines would work together and future improvements could be retrofitted to earlier models.

George Westinghouse was one of the first people to think of standardization.

Westinghouse the high achiever

George Westinghouse, building on his airbrake innovation, turned his attention to railroad signaling. He purchased some patents to combine with his own ideas to develop a complete electrical and compressed air-signaling system.

Westinghouse began to apply his knowledge of air brakes to problems that manifested themselves with safely piping natural gas. This work began in 1883 and would last for a further two years, a time through which, he would obtain 38 patents for his solution.

George Westinghouse's patents

Here are some of his patents:

- U.S. Patent 34,605, grain and seed winnowers

- U.S. Patent 106,899, improvements in steam engine and pump

- U.S. Patent 109,695, improvement in atmospheric car-brake pipes

- U.S. Patent 136,631, improvement in steam-power-brake couplings

- U.S. Patent 149,901, improvement in valves for fluid brake-pipes

- U.S. Patent 218,149, improvement in fluid-pressure brake apparatus

- U.S. Patent 280,269, fluid-pressure regulator

- U.S. Patent 366,362, electrical converter

- U.S. Patent 399,639, system of electrical distribution

- U.S. Patent 314,089, system for the protection of railroad-tracks and gas-pipe lines

- U.S. Patent 400,420, fluid-meter

- U.S. Patent 425,059, fluid-pressure automatic brake mechanism

- U.S. Patent 427,489, alternating current electric meter

- U.S. Patent 437,740, fluid-pressure automatic brake

- U.S. Patent 446,159, switch and signal apparatus

- U.S. Patent 454,129, pipe-coupling

- U.S. Patent 497,394, conduit electric railway

- U.S. Patent 499,336, draw-gear apparatus for cars

- U.S. Patent 543,280, incandescent electric lamp

- U.S. Patent 550,465, electric railway

- U.S. Patent 579,506, current-collecting device for railway-vehicles

- U.S. Patent 595,007, elevator

- U.S. Patent 595,008, electric railway

- U.S. Patent 609,484, fluid pressure automatic brake

- U.S. Patent 672,114, draft appliance for railway cars

- U.S. Patent 672,117, draw-gear and buffing apparatus

- U.S. Patent 676,108, electric railway system

- U.S. Patent 687,468, draw-gear and buffing apparatus

- U.S. Patent 727,039, automatic fluid pressure brake apparatus

- U.S. Patent 922,827, gearing

- U.S. Patent 995,508, elastic-fluid turbine

- U.S. Patent 1,119,913, electric railway

Electricity sparks Westinghouse's interest

During the 1880's, the U.S. was undergoing electrification. The first systems used direct, or DC, current. In Europe, there was a growing market and development of alternating-current (AC) alternatives. In 1881, in London, AC current was demonstrated successfully for the first time. It was created by Lucien Gaulard from France and John Gibbs from England.

In 1885, George Westinghouse decided to take a gamble and imported a set of the Gaulard-Gibbs transformers. He also imported a Siemens AC generator and began to set up an electrical system in Pittsburgh.

George Westinghouse: The Man Who Electrified the United States
Gaulard-Gibbs Vertical Transformer, 1884. Source: Dmm2va7/Wikimedia Commons

Westinghouse employed the services of three electrical engineers he managed to alter and perfect the transformer and develop a constant voltage AC generator. George's Westinghouse Electric Company was incorporated the following year with its name changed in 1888 to the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company.

He began to hunt for a solution to a long-distance power supply.

Westinghouse and Tesla

Nikola Tesla emigrated to the U.S in 1884. He would initially work with Thomas Edison, the man responsible for pushing DC on America. Edison proved to be a difficult man to work for, and they would soon part ways.

This would prove to be one the greatest moments in history for Tesla, Westinghouse and all of us today.

Tesla would go on to form his own company in 1885, The Tesla Electric Light Company. The idea was to create arc lighting. Tesla quickly did the rounds attempting to draw in investment into his new enterprise.

His designs for motors and electrical transmission equipment didn't spark the interest he was hoping for. Tesla, now penniless and with no financial backers, was forced to work as a laborer to pay his bills.

George Westinghouse noticed Tesla in 1888. Westinghouse became convinced that Tesla's AC systems would be the ideal solution to his problem. He purchased Tesla' s patents for a sum of $60,000 (around $1.5 million today). He also offered Tesla stock options in Westinghouse's company.

Tesla and Westinghouse join forces

Tesla would now work closely with George Westinghouse to perfect his electrical transmission system. When the new improved system was ready, it was quickly released to the American Market. 

This would put Westinghouse and Tesla and their AC system into direct conflict with Edison and his DC system. Advocates of DC, as well as Edison, would begin a campaign to discredit AC power. 

This campaign would prove to be very nasty indeed, culminating in the false accusation that AC current was a danger to human life. This campaign would even go as far as to introduce a Westinghouse AC generators as the official means of implementing the death sentence in New York.

George Westinghouse: The Man Who Electrified the United States

Westinghouse AC dynamo's that provided lighting for the 1893 World Columbian Exposition, Chicago. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Thankfully, this campaign would prove unsuccessful. The Westinghouse Company was officially commissioned to provide light for the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893

Westinghouse and Tesla would also secure the rights to build a hydroelectric system at Niagara Falls. His enterprises would later employ 50,000 workers.

Death and Legacy

Westinghouse's company would flourish until 1907 when financial panic forced Westinghouse to resign control of the company. George Westinghouse would sever ties with his former company by 1911. His health soon began to fail him.

George died on March the 12th, 1914 in New York City. He was 67 years old. Westinghouse's body was first interred in Woodlawn Cemetry, the Bronx, New York. It would later be exhumed and moved to Arlington National Cemetery on December the 14th, 1915. His body was moved because he was a civil war veteran. 

George Westinghouse: The Man Who Electrified the United States
Source: Ron Williams/ArlingtonCemetery

His widow, Marguerite, would outlive him for just another three months. After his death she was quoted as saying "I have nothing to live for now". Marguerite would initially be buried in Woodlawn, but like George Westinghouse, she would later be exhumed and reinterred to join George.

George's former home, Solitude, would be razed to the ground in 1918. The land was then donated to the City of Pittsburgh by the Westinghouse Estate. The city would turn the ground into the Westinghouse Park, in his honor. The Westinghouse Memorial was raised in 1930, which had been funded by his former employees. This memorial was placed in Schenley Park in Pittsburgh. 

George Westinghouse also had a bridge named after him near his Turtle Creek plant. The plaque on the bridge reads:


George Westinghouse would later be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, in 1989

Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
message circleSHOW COMMENT (1)chevron
Job Board