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George Westinghouse

June 16, 2016

As Mark Twain supposedly said, "I have never let my schooling interfere with my education." However, the evidence for Twain's saying this is slight, and it's thought that the attribution should be to novelist and essayist, Grant Allen.[1]

No matter who said it, it appears to have held true for many notable individuals, including Bill Gates, a self-taught computer programmer, and a famous Harvard University drop-out. About a century earlier than Gates, George Westinghouse, Jr., (1846-1914) dropped out of Union College (Schenectady, New York) in his first term to create a series of inventions and an industrial empire.

George W. Melville (left) with George Westinghouse (right)

George Westinghouse (right) with George W. Melville (left).

Melville was chief of the Bureau of Steam Engineering of the US Navy, and he was appointed its Engineer in Chief in 1900.

This photo is dated circa 1890-1912.

Melville's presence is likely a consequence of Westinghouse having developed steam turbines for maritime propulsion.

(Portion of a Wikimedia Commons image, from the United States Library of Congress Prints and Photographs division, digital ID cph.3b38543.)

Westinghouse was born in Schoharie, New York, quite near to Schenectady and Union College. His father, George Westinghouse, Sr., owned a machine shop where the younger George became adept at designing and making machinery. After spending some time in military service in the New York National Guard and the New York Cavalry during the Civil War, he found service in the US Navy as an engineer on a gunboat through the war's end.

It was after the war, in 1865, when he returned to civilian life, that he attended Union College for that short period. At that point, he began his career as an inventor, inventing steam-powered engines, such as the Westinghouse Farm Engine, and railroad equipment.[2] As I wrote in a previous article (Bacterial Signature, November 12, 2015), steam engines of all sorts were ubiquitous in that period, as were steam locomotives in rail transport.

In 1869, after seeing a train wreck caused by the primitive braking system used at the time in which brakes were local to each rail car and not centrally controlled, Westinghouse invented his compressed air braking system for rail cars. As detailed in his 1873 patent (see figure), a locomotive engineer could apply brakes to all rail cars simultaneously.

Figures one and two from US Patent No. 144,006, 'Improvement in steam and air brakes,' by George Westinhouse, Jr., October 28, 1873.

Figures one and two from US Patent No. 144,006, 'Improvement in steam and air brakes,' by George Westinghouse, Jr., October 28, 1873.

(Via Google Patents.[3]

The system had a safety feature in which the compressed air actually disengaged the brakes, so any failure of the compressed air supply would result in immediate braking. These brakes, which became ubiquitous on rail cars, were manufactured and sold by the Westinghouse Air Brake Company. Westinghouse leveraged his railroad connections to produce and market other railroad devices, such as railway signals. He founded the Union Switch & Signal Company to manufacture and sell such devices.

Patent model of Westinghouse's air brake (1869)

The patent model of Westinghouse's air brake (1869), now at the Heinz History Center, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Portion of a photograph by Daderot, via Wikimedia Commons.)

After Edison's perfecting the incandescent light bulb and building the first electric power station in lower Manhattan in the period 1879-1882, Westinghouse realized the commercial importance of electrical technology. Seeing that he could make more money by developing a potentially better alternating current (AC) electric system to compete with Edison's direct current (DC) system, he hired physicist, William Stanley, to investigate AC circuitry in Pittsburgh. I wrote about the advantages of AC power distribution in reducing power losses in transmission lines in a previous article (Ionized Air, July 9, 2015).

Westinghouse and Stanley installed their first AC power system in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, in 1886. Power was derived from a 500 volt hydroelectric generator stepped up by transformer to 3,000 volts for transmission. At the end of the transmission line, transformers stepped the voltage down to 100 volts to supply electric lights. The year, 1886, also marked the founding of the Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company. The company name was shortened to Westinghouse Electric Corporation in 1889.

Any article about AC power systems must mention Nikola Tesla. Westinghouse licensed Nikola Tesla's US patents for induction motor and transformer designs in 1888. This was followed by AC lighting of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, for which Westinghouse outbid Edison's General Electric. The Columbian Exposition demonstration was an important factor in the decision to have Westinghouse build the Adams Power Plant at Niagara Falls in 1895.

Westinghouse had close ties to the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, having moved there in 1869 and eventually living in the Homewood section of the city. Brady Smith, senior communications manager of the Heinz History Center (www.heinzhistorycenter.org) recalls several details of his life there in a recent article.[4] Since he had been a working man at his father's company, he understood the drudgery of the customary six day work week, so in 1881 he gave his employees a half-day off on Saturdays.[4]

Natural gas wells in Pennsylvania are not just a modern phenomenon associated with fracking. Westinghouse drilled a gas well in his backyard in 1884 so he could have a supply of that fuel for experiments. As a result, he founded the first commercial gas company in Pittsburgh.[4] Westinghouse lost control of Westinghouse Electric after the financial crisis of 1907, and by 1911 his health was failing, and he was no longer active in business.[4]

At his death in 1914, Westinghouse left a legacy of 60 founded companies with 15,000 patents and 50,000 worldwide employees.[4] His boyhood home in Schoharie, New York, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

George Westinghouse, Jr., Birthplace

George Westinghouse, Jr., Birthplace and Boyhood Home.

Yes, there's snow; and, as someone who originates from the Upstate New York area, I know that there's always snow.

(Wikimedia Commons photo by Adam Lenhardt.)


  1. Never Let Schooling Interfere With Your Education - Mark Twain? Grant Allen?, Quote Investigator, September 25, 2010.
  2. According to Wikipedia, Henry Ford enjoyed working with a Westinghouse Farm Engine on a farm, and he even worked as a mechanic for these farm engines for the Westinghouse Company.
  3. George Westinghouse, "Improvement in steam and air brakes," US Patent No. 144,006, October 28, 1873.
  4. Brady Smith, "Let's learn from the past: George Westinghouse," Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 21, 2016.
  5. George Westinghouse Biography, Engineering and Technology History Wiki.

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