Today marks the 169th anniversary of George Westinghouse, of whom Tesla wrote, “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.”
Westinghouse held more than 100 patents, inventing everything from air brakes for trains in 1869 to suspension systems for cars in 1909. I profiled him in a chapter of my book, "Exceptional Americans 2: The Capitalists," which I repost in honor of his birth.
Chapter 16. You can be sure... if it's George Westinghouse.
When he was 15, George Westinghouse Junior went to war -- enlisting on the Union side in the Civil War in 1861. His parents were besides themselves. But eventually he quit the Army in December 1864 -- to join the Navy where he served as Acting Third Assistant Engineer on the USS Muscoota, a steam gunboat that was sent to Key West in May 1865 to keep Jefferson Davis from fleeing the country. Mustered out in August 1865, he tried school but quit.
Born on October 6, 1846, his father ran a machine shop. Young Westinghouse followed in his father's footsteps and took giant steps beyond him. At 19, young Westinghouse received his first patent, for a rotary steam engine. He invented a farm engine, and a device that helped put derailed cars back on line. He also invented the reversible frog, which helps trains switch tracks. These were pretty basic pieces for the railroad industry -- invented by a man barely out of his teens.
In 1867, he married Marguerite Erskine Walker for life, as they remained married for 47 years until his death at 67. Around that time, he witnessed a trainwreck. The engineers knew their trains would collide but they could not brake in time, as the brakemen had to run from car to car, on catwalks atop the cars, and apply the brakes manually on each car. That led to the greatest invention of a man who held more than 100 U.S. patents -- the air brake. It would save lives, save property, and make George Westinghouse Jr. a very rich man.
He was a few days shy of his 23rd birthday when he set up the Westinghouse Air Brake Company in Pittsburgh. Later, he built an air brake factory in Wilmerding, Pennsylvania, just 14 miles outside of Pittsburgh. He proved to be a good boss, adopting a 55-hour work week and giving workers half of Saturday off. He sold workers cheap land for houses. He was a rare 19th century boss who had a 20th century outlook on labor-management relations.
By 1893, air brakes became the industry standard. By 1905, his company had fitted 89,000 locomotives and 2 million railroad cars with air brakes.
He pursued inventions that improved rail safety in other ways.
But his big push came when Thomas Alva Edison refined the incandescent lamp -- or light bulb -- in 1879. The surge was on to build generators and distribution lines. Edison preferred Direct Current. Westinghouse was more impressed by Alternating Current, which Europeans were using. Contrary to popular belief, Nikola Tesla did not invent AC. He did something more important; he invented a polyphase brushless AC induction motor, which was a key in building the AC distribution lines. Anyone can come up with an idea. Making it work matters more.
This led to the War of Currents. J.P. Morgan backed Edison and his DC, but eventually the banker came to realize AC was the safer, cheaper, and better way to go. Morgan formed General Electric and forced Edison out. But Edison had other interests, such as the new technology called movies. GE and Westinghouse reached an agreement on sharing Westinghouse's patents.
Like other inventor-entrepreneurs, Westinghouse licensed or outright purchased patent rights. His deal with Tesla made his company -- but it also nearly broke the company as well, for the royalties were $2.50 per horsepower. Westinghouse told Tesla flatly that such a royalty would bankrupt him. The two made a deal. Tesla sold the patent rights for $216,000.
All went well for Westinghouse until the Panic of 1907 forced his ouster from his own company. Three years later, he patented a compressed air shock absorber for cars.
He died at 67 in 1914 and was buried at Arlington, as he had served in the Civil War. He left behind countless lives saved by his rail safety and AC.
While most history books ignore Westinghouse, his accomplishments in technology in the 19th century rivaled Edison. Using Tesla's technology and AC, Westinghouse built the first hydroelectric power plant at Niagara Falls, New York, which generated electricity to Buffalo, which is 22 miles away. That was the furthest electricity had ever traveled from its source. DC could travel no more than three miles at the time. In order to do this, he and Tesla developed the transformer, something everyone takes for granted a century later.
Besides cheap and safe electricity, Westinghouse was responsible for the safe delivery of natural gas to houses using pipelines by inventing a valve. Oddly enough, natural gas and electricity are competing sources of energy, and he helped shape the delivery of each. This is on top of his air brakes and his invention of gas shock absorbers which made riding in the back seat comfortable today, and possible in the days of poor roads.
Tesla wrote of him: “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.”
Yes, indeed we do.