Childhood & Early Life
George Westinghouse Jr. was born on October 6, 1846, in Central Bridge, New York, U.S., to George Westinghouse Sr., a machine shop owner, and his wife, Emeline (Vedder).
While he grew up, he often polished his machinery skills and learned about his family business. He was 15 when the Civil War broke out. Westinghouse was drafted into the 'New York National Guard.' However, he had to quit his duty, as his parents wanted him to return home.
Westinghouse managed to convince his parents to let him rejoin the service, and in April 1863, he was re-drafted into military service.
He joined 'Company M' of the '16th New York Cavalry' and eventually became a corporal. He resigned from the army in December 1864 and joined the navy as an acting third assistant engineer on the gunboat 'USS Muscoota.'
He was discharged in August 1865. Following this, he attended 'Union College' but dropped out in his first term.
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Westinghouse's first invention was the rotary steam engine, which he had devised at the age of 19. it was also his first patented invention.
While working at his father's machinery shop, he developed an interest in steam engines. Soon after, he invented the 'Westinghouse Farm Engine,' a small, vertical-boiler steam engine.
His experiments were interrupted by his service in the 'Union Army' during the Civil War. He rejoined his father's business after the war ended.
Westinghouse was 21 when he invented a car replacer that got derailed railroad cars back on the tracks and a reversible frog that allowed trains to switch ("hop") across rails at a junction.
While serving in the army, he learned the significance of railroads in the industrial boom and the fact that the newly devised transport system required advanced safety measures.
Another incident that motivated him was a train crash he had witnessed on the 'Mohawk and Hudson Railroad.' Back then, trains were stopped manually, usually by impoverished boys who would turn mechanical brake wheels on top of train cars.
Westinghouse found this extremely dangerous, as the boys were always in danger of getting crushed between rail cars. He decided to invent an automated brake system. He thus came up with a compressed air-brake system (patented in 1869).
It proved to be a fail-safe system to halt trains. The system used compressed air to release brakes from the wheels.
Westinghouse's railway brake system inspired the modern railway brake system that has been adopted around the world.
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He established the 'Westinghouse Air Brake Company' to commercialize his invention. Soon, his system was adopted by various rail companies in the world. The last company to adopt the system was 'New York Central,' after it conducted a final test between the brake systems of Westinghouse and the 'New York Air Brake Company.'
The 1893 'Railroad Safety Appliance Act’ made his air-brake system compulsory on all American trains.
Westinghouse's company marketed not only his inventions but those of others, too. He would eventually establish over 60 such companies.
After inventing the safe-brake system, Westinghouse contributed to the improvement of rail signaling devices and formed the 'Union Switch and Signal Company.'
In 1883, he devised a safe system of piping natural gas, using his theories of air brakes. In the subsequent 2 years, he was granted 38 patents for piping equipment.
While working on natural-gas control, Westinghouse learned that the theory of gas valves could be applied to electricity, enabling it for wider distribution and usage.
His next notable invention was the alternating current (AC) system that revolutionized the power industry. Edison's direct current (DC) systems were new to the world, but in Europe, AC was thriving slowly.
Many American electrical engineers showed interest in the newly devised AC systems. Westinghouse sensed the potential for AC systems and finally tapped the opportunity.
He first bought the patent rights to the 'Gaulard and Gibbs' transformer and hired William Stanley, who had developed the first practical transformer, and Franklin Pope.
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Westinghouse wanted to develop a more useful and reliable transformer. Around that time, North American companies such as 'Thomson-Houston' in Lynn were importing the AC apparatus from Europe to develop their systems.
Westinghouse sponsored Stanley's AC demonstration system, which was built in Great Barrington in 1886. It was the greatest achievement ever made in the field of AC power. The result was the first-ever reliable transformer. Stanley shocked the world with the invention and demonstrated its utility by lighting up the downtown.
Westinghouse then hired Oliver Shallenberger to develop a measuring device for AC power. Thus, an induction meter was created. The apparatus made AC systems profitable.
The 'Westinghouse Electric Company' was established in 1886 to market the systems. He was now able to buy AC patents developed anywhere in the world.
However, the revolution he had brought into the power industry was rejected by Edison and his supporters, who campaigned against the AC system, citing its health hazards.
The fierce campaign against Westinghouse eventually turned into a legal battle called “The Seven Years War.” Westinghouse ultimately proved the advantages of AC over DC. He included Nikola Tesla's AC technology patents in 1888 to prove his point.
In 1888, Westinghouse purchased the rights to the polyphase induction motor, which Galileo Ferraris had developed, while Tesla created one with a modified design the same year.
Westinghouse and Tesla collaborated, developed a safety case for the AC system, and demonstrated it by lighting up the 1893 'World's Columbian Exposition' in Chicago with his AC generator.
Subsequently, financier J.P. Morgan merged many of Edison's companies with his competitors, such as 'Thomson-Houston' and 'Brush,' forming 'General Electric.'
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Westinghouse's company won the legal battle against Edison. It was granted the permit to build a large-scale generator system to convert the hydropower derived from the Niagara Falls into electrical energy and then use it commercially.
'General Electric,' which had many in-house AC experts and young electrical engineers from Europe, turned out to be a tough competitor for Westinghouse's company. Hence, he hired Benjamin G. Lamme in 1889 and soon became a leader in the industry.
After establishing a commercially viable and cost-effective power supply system, he focused on electrical power production. Back then, hydropower and reciprocation of steam engines were the only two known ways of producing electricity.
Westinghouse had known since his teenage years that the latter was inefficient. He thus bought the rights to the efficient steam turbine that Charles A. Parsons had developed in 1884 and began working on its development.
By 1898, he had developed a 300 kW steam turbine that supplied power to his air-brake factory.
Final Years & Death
The financial panic of 1907, along with his declining health, led to Westinghouse's resignation from his company. Since 1911, he stopped participating in business activities.
In 1911, Westinghouse was honored with the ‘IEEE Edison Medal' for his achievements in the field of the AC power system.
He died on March 12, 1914, in New York City and was interred in the 'Woodlawn Cemetery,' the Bronx. His remains were moved to the 'Arlington National Cemetery' on December 14, 1915, to honor his service during the Civil War.
The 'Westinghouse Company' operated until the 1980s. By the 1990s, many divisions of the company were sold off, except its nuclear division (which is still active). The company eventually turned into a media house named 'CBS Corporation.'