George Westinghouse was a gutsy child who showed great promise in the area of innovation and businesses from an early age and grew up to become one of the most influential and talented engineers, inventors and entrepreneurs of modern times.
Westinghouse was born in 1846 in Central Bridge, New York, the son of Emeline Vedder and George Westinghouse, Sr., a machine shop owner. When he was only 15, the Civil War broke out and so he enlisted the New York National Guard. After serving and briefly attending college, Westinghouse returned to his father’s shop where, he created his first invention at the age of 19, a rotary steam engine, which he eventually patented. One of his most famous creations was developed that same year and it was a device to help derailed train carts be placed back on the track.
George Westinghouse continued working with trains and after witnessing a wreck in which both machinists were unable to stop their engines using their existing breaks, he came up with a railroad braking system using compressed air. Westinghouse patented his innovative brake system on October 28, 1873.
The correct distribution of natural gas was another area in which Westinghouse applied himself; his ideas were the basis for founding a company to distribute gas in the Pittsburgh area. The knowledge he gained from working with gas distribution pointed him in the direction of finding a better way to distribute electric current.
One of the problems with Thomas Edison’s Direct Current DC network was its inability to transmit power over distances over a mile. Westinghouse hired physicist William Stanley to begin working on his own version of a DC lighting system, but later he became aware of the new European AC systems and the possibility they offered to ramp up power in order to transmit it over longer distances with the use of transformers. AC power became a way for Westinghouse to realize his vision of providing power to cities with more dispersed population and to reach a greater economies of scale.
Westinghouse ideas were met with fierce opposition, mainly from Thomas Edison who went to great lengths to prove that AC systems were extremely dangerous. Edison went as far as beginning a public media campaign to show the inherent dangers of AC systems and even tried to have legislation enacted in many states to limit power transmission voltages. An electrical consultant named Harold P. Brown was instrumental into making sure AC would be used in powering the newly developed electric chair, further trying to prove that Westinghouse’s system proved to be a danger to the people and thus adding more fuel to the fire of what was known as the “War of the Currents” between Edison and Westinghouse.
The feud would end with financiers, such as J. P. Morgan, taking Edison Electric towards AC. The Edison Machine Works started pursuing AC development in 1890 and by 1892, Thomas Edison was no longer in control of his own company as it merged with Thomson-Houston Electric Company into General Electric.
Westinghouse was able to show that they could build a complete AC system at the Columbian Exposition and this was key getting the contract for building a two-phase AC generating system, the Adams Power Plant, at Niagara Falls in 1895.
Westinghouse pursued other projects as well, like forming the Duquesne Mining & Reduction Company after purchasing some mining claims in the Patagonia Mountains in Arizona.
However, as the AC networks continued to expand Westinghouse turned his attention to electrical power production. In 1898 he demonstrated a 300 kilowatt unit, replacing reciprocating engines in his air-brake factory. Shortly after that, he installed a 1.5-megawatt, 1,200-rpm unit for the Hartford Electric Light Company. Further advancement and research in this ideas lead to devising an automatic alignment system that made turbine power practical for maritime turbine propulsion of large vessels.
Westinghouse remained productive and inventive almost all his life. He was acclaimed in his time as the “greatest living engineer,” and was accorded numerous honors in the U.S. and abroad, even after his death on March 12, 1914. One the finest tribute of all may have come from inventor Nikola Tesla whose patents were acquired by Westinghouse and gave the company its early leadership in electric power developments and were also in part responsible for winning the contract to install the first power machinery at Niagara Falls. Tesla said: “George Westinghouse was, in my opinion, the only man on this globe who could take my alternating-current system under the circumstances then existing and win the battle against prejudice and money power. He was one of the world’s true noblemen, of whom America may well be proud and to whom humanity owes an immense debt of gratitude.”