George Westinghouse and his first invention

How was America built and who were the people responsible for building such an amazing and successful country? Yes, we have names such as JP Morgan, Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, Andrew Carnegie and many more. They are the ones responsible for financially taking the United States to places nobody could ever imagine. Although their contributions were of the most excellence, like Ford that contributed financially and technologically with his cars, there is a name that is not as famous as the above mentioned characters. This man is seen more as an inventor than a financial titan, but because of his inventions and knowledge, transportation is where it is now. The man is George Westinghouse who in 1869 revolutionized the railroad industry making braking much safer and allowing trains to travel at higher speeds. This invention is one of his most well-known inventions and here we bring you the story on how he started his life in the industry and how he contributed to the development of the United States.

Portrait of George Westinghouse_american financial titans_entrepreaneur
Image courtesy of CharmaineZoe’s Marvelous Melange at Flickr.com

The “Westinghausen” family was an important family in Westphalia, Germany, and in the 14th century an important part of the family went to England and later to the United States. George Westinghouses’ father moved from Vermont to Ohio and settled at Central Bridge, New York, as a farmer. It was there in Central Bridge, New York on October 6, 1846 that George Jr. was born to George Westinghouse and his wife, Emmeline Vedder. The family then moved to Schenectary, New York where his father started a company to manufacture farm tools called G. Westinghouse & Company. George Westinghouse junior was only 10 and he was already helping his father with the company and learning all he needed to know about the use of tools, materials, machinery and structures.

George Westinghouse then went to the army for three long years and when he went back to Schenectary, New York he enrolled as a sophomore at Union College.  After three months of studying subjects that he thought were not useful for a person with his mechanical learnings and needs for his family company, he convinced the teachers that the program was just not good for him and he dropped out of the college at Christmas vacation and returned to his father’s factory. When he was in the university he obtained his first patent: on October 31, 1865, at the age of 19, he obtained his first patent for a rotary steam engine.

Light Rail Station_George Westinghouse_patrick dwyer_american financial titans
Image courtesy of Travis Wise at Flickr.com

George Westinghouse continued to work with his father at the factory and was very curious about all the devices and the mechanisms. He constantly tried to improve machinery at the factory. It was while traveling on the trains for his father´s business that he observed the problem of derailed cars, where apart from being very often, the contingency plan did not include a proper mechanism or device for replacing derailed cars. This led to his first invention in 1867 to address this problem and created a solution that allowed cars to be replaced with greater ease and in shorter time. He started a business in Schenectady with two partners who put up $5000 each to finance the manufacture of the car replacer. That same year he married Marguerite Erskine and had one child, George Westinghouse, 3rd.

George then went to Pittsburgh to arrange for a steel company to make the car replacer at less cost because he had had some problems with his former partners. During his visits to Pittsburgh he made a lot of friends and met people who were also interested in the railroad world and in his work on inventions and manufacturing for the industry. It is here where he found the support for his Pittsburgh companies later in the future and where he first came up with his successful idea of the Air Brake System.

George Westinghouse saw that the train system could be even bigger and better, but he understood that the biggest obstacle was its brake system that was antique and very unsafe. He worked at improving train brakes for three years and after failing for several times, Westinghouse finally arrived to the idea that finally worked. The device worked like this: there would be “an air compressor in the engine cab and several pipes would carry the air to the brakes on each of the cars. The engineer could admit compressed air into the system to stop the train and release the air when he wanted to move”. Before this invention, trains were frequently involved in accidents because brakes had to be applied manually on each car by different brakemen following a signal from the engineer.

George Westinghouse then expanded and 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 1881.

This was the first invention and patent that George Westinghouse introduced to the market and made him the successful businessman and titan that he became. He went into the gas and the electricity industries later on and was also very successful.

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