George Westinghouse's Influence on Electricity

george westinghouse

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George Westinghouse was a prolific inventor who influenced the course of history by promoting the use of electricity for power and transportation. He enabled the growth of railroads through his inventions. As an industrial manager, Westinghouse's influence on history is considerable -- he formed and directed more than 60 companies to market his and others' inventions during his lifetime. His electric company became one of the greatest electric manufacturing organizations in the U.S., and his influence abroad was evidenced by the many companies he founded in other countries.

The Early Years

Born on October 6, 1846, in Central Bridge, New York, George Westinghouse worked in his father's shops in Schenectady where they manufactured agricultural machinery. He served as a private in the cavalry for two years during the Civil War before rising to Acting Third Assistant Engineer in the Navy in 1864. He attended college for only 3 months in 1865, dropping out soon after obtaining his first patent on October 31, 1865, for a rotary steam engine.

Westinghouse’s Inventions

Westinghouse invented an instrument to replace derailed freight cars on train tracks and started a business to manufacture his invention. He obtained a patent for one of his most important inventions, the air brake, in April 1869. This device enabled locomotive engineers to stop trains with fail-safe accuracy for the first time. It was eventually adopted by the majority of the world's railroads. Train accidents had been frequent before Westinghouse’s invention because brakes had to be applied manually on each car by different brakemen following a signal from the engineer.

Seeing potential profit in the invention, Westinghouse organized the Westinghouse Air Brake Company in July 1869, acting as its president. He continued to make changes to his air brake design and later developed the automatic air brake system and the triple valve.

Westinghouse then expanded into the railroad signaling industry in the United States by organizing the Union Switch and Signal Company. His industry grew as he opened companies in Europe and Canada. Devices based on his own inventions and the patents of others were designed to control the increased speed and flexibility which was made possible by the invention of the air brake. Westinghouse also developed an apparatus for the safe transmission of natural gas.

The Westinghouse Electric Company

Westinghouse saw the potential for electricity early on and formed the Westinghouse Electric Company in 1884. It would later be known as the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company. He obtained exclusive rights to Nikola Tesla’s patents for a polyphase system of alternating current in 1888, persuading the inventor to join the Westinghouse Electric Company.

There was opposition from the public to the development of alternating current electricity. Critics, including Thomas Edison, argued that it was dangerous and a health hazard. This idea was enforced when New York adopted the use of alternating current electrocution for capital crimes. Undeterred, Westinghouse proved its viability by having his company design and provide the lighting system for the entire Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.

The Niagara Falls Project

Westinghouse's company took on another industrial challenge when it was awarded a contract with the Cataract Construction Company in 1893 to build three huge generators to harness the energy of the Niagara Falls. Installation on this project began in April 1895. By November, all three generators were completed. Engineers at Buffalo closed the circuits that finally completed the process to bring power from Niagara a year later.

The hydroelectric development of Niagara Falls by George Westinghouse in 1896 inaugurated the practice of placing generating stations far from consumption centers. The Niagara plant transmitted massive amounts of power to Buffalo, over 20 miles away. Westinghouse developed a device called a transformer to solve the problem of sending electricity over long distances. 

Westinghouse convincingly demonstrated the general superiority of transmitting power with electricity rather than by mechanical means such as the use of ropes, hydraulic pipes, or compressed air, all of which had been proposed. He demonstrated the transmission superiority of alternating current over direct current. Niagara set a contemporary standard for generator size, and it was the first large system supplying electricity from one circuit for multiple end uses such as railway, lighting, and power.

The Parsons Steam Turbine

Westinghouse made further industrial history by acquiring exclusive rights to manufacture the Parsons steam turbine in America and introducing the first alternating current locomotive in 1905. The first major application of alternating current to railway systems was used in the Manhattan Elevated railways in New York and later in the New York City subway system. The first single-phase railway locomotive was demonstrated in the East Pittsburgh railway yards in 1905. Soon after, the Westinghouse Company began the task of electrifying the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad with the single-phase system between Woodlawn, New York and Stamford, Connecticut.

Westinghouse’s Later Years

The various Westinghouse companies were worth about $120 million and employed approximately 50,000 workers at the turn of the century. By 1904, Westinghouse owned nine manufacturing companies in the U.S., one in Canada, and five in Europe. Then the financial panic of 1907 caused Westinghouse to lose control of the companies he had founded. He founded his last major project in 1910, the invention of a compressed air spring for taking the shock out of automobile riding. But by 1911, he had severed all ties with his former companies.

Spending much of his later life in public service, Westinghouse showed signs of a heart ailment by 1913. He was ordered to rest by doctors. After deteriorating health and illness confined him to a wheelchair, he died on March 12, 1914, with a total of 361 patents to his credit. His last patent was received in 1918, four years after his death.

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Bellis, Mary. "George Westinghouse's Influence on Electricity." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Bellis, Mary. (2023, April 5). George Westinghouse's Influence on Electricity. Retrieved from Bellis, Mary. "George Westinghouse's Influence on Electricity." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 8, 2023).