The innovator who rescued America from the darkness

George Westinghouse was the son of a prosperous manufacturer of machinery. This American inventor and industrialist was born in Central Bridge, New York, and studied in the same city, at the University of Schenectady.

He joined the army during the Civil War and attended Union College before retiring to civilian life.  As a young man, he left his studies at an early age to cooperate in the family business, using his father’s workshop for making small experimental machines. The result of these experiences at sixteen was a rotary machine, that he perfected years later. Witnessing the derailment of a train, he devised a pneumatic brake that could be applied in each of the carriages simultaneously, invention which was ignored by those to whom he presented it. Initially he became interested in railways, inventing the automatic air brake system of railway signals and crossing needle device that allowed the trains to go from one track to another.

When the Civil War began, he was called up to join the Corps of Engineers of the Navy. He acquired the patent of a turbine designed by Parsons and manufactured his own. At 23 he got his first patent with an air pump, with which he founded the first company that bore his name and of which he was president. The great industrial capacity of this company led it to provide supplies to the entire country but also to the UK.

In 1886, in the town of Burlington (Iowa), a brakes contest was held to adopt the model with the most interest on railways. The Westinghouse air brake emerged as triumphant in the competition, and thus the nascent industry run by the inventor received a boost. Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Co. was established in a small venue in Garrison Alley, near Pennsylvania Station.

Westinghouse Brake and Signal Co_american financial titans_patrick dwyer
Image courtesy of Paul Townsend at Flickr.com

The air brake, even though successfully tested in 1868, was not put into operation until after the approval of the Railroad Safety Appliance Act in 1893. Westinghouse would obtain more than 400 patents, many of them for AC machinery.

Westinghouse then laid the principles of modern signaling system for railways that, once adopted by most American lines, the ground was set for the creation of new activities in the companies he owned.

Along with Charles Steinmetz, he prompted the use of AC power in the United States. By the time he was 40 he had developed a system of safe delivery of natural gas to rooms and houses via pipelines, and he had also invented the gas meter.

He later became interested in the adaptation of electricity to various aspects of life. He suggested that the alternating current, hitherto of very little use, could be the solution to transmit energy, he acquired patents of various inventors of the continent and hired the services of Nikola Tesla, with whose collaboration he managed to perfect the AC induction motor.

The Westinghouse electricity distribution system is based in the alternating current that prevailed over Edison’s insistence on direct current. He bought Nikola Tesla’s patent for the production and transportation of alternating current, which he promoted and developed. He would later perfect the transformer, developed an alternator and adapted the AC motor invented by Nikola Tesla for practical use.

The hostility of a certain interested sector, embodied in a bitter campaign against the tenacious inventor, which stated that the general adoption of alternating current represented a threat to the lives of citizens, did not succeed, and so Westinghouse, at 46, had registered 134 patents to his name for various inventions. At the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Westinghouse saw the opportunity to show to the public the great possibilities of electricity. He was awarded the contract for lighting the exhibition, a task that proved to require a number of dynamos whose volume was higher than allowed by the organization. The solution was to arrange them in a pinnacle shape.

Shortly after he took over the construction of the hydroelectric plant of Niagara Falls, which was the most powerful in the world at the time. Westinghouse also perfected the electric traction, and designed and built the first trams and electric locomotives.

With the advent of radio telephony, he incorporated his company into this new activity, which became a precursor to the radio at home by adopting entirely new manufacturing processes, resulting from the investigations carried out in his laboratory.

Westinghouse was considered one of the greatest engineers of the time. During his lifetime he was decorated by the kings of Belgium and Italy, and also by the President of the French Republic. He was part of scientific and engineering societies in many countries. Westinghouse Electric co., dedicated to the manufacture of all types of appliances, currently has industrial plants in a number of industrialized countries.

George Westinghouse died in New York on March 12, 1914.

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