|October 6 1846
Central Bridge, New York
|March 12 1914
New York, New York
George Westinghouse, Jr. (October 6 1846 – March 12 1914) was an American entrepreneur and engineer now best known for the brand of electrical goods that bear his name. Friend to Nikola Tesla and one of Thomas Edison's main rivals in the early implementation of the American electricity system, he was also active in the railroad and telephone industries.
In 1911, he received the AIEE's Edison Medal “For meritorious achievement in connection with the development of the alternating current system for light and power.”
Westinghouse was born on October 6, 1846, in Central Bridge, New York. His parents, George and Emeline, were farmers. At age nine he moved with his family to Schenectady, where his father opened a farm-tool factory. Westinghouse was given the run of the machine shop, and by age 15 he had invented a rather impractical rotary steam engine. That same year he ran away to join the Union army, but his parents made him come home. However, when he turned 16, he convinced them to let him serve, and he spent one year in the Union army and one year in the Union navy. After the Civil War, Westinghouse returned to his father’s machine shop; in 1867 he married Marguerite Walker with whom he had one son, George Westinghouse III.
Having developed an interest in railroading, he invented one device for setting derailed freight cars back on the track and another to extend the service life of railroad switches. However the partnerships he set up to market these devices both fell through, and in 1868 he moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In 1869, he invented a vastly improved air brake for railcars. Whereas previous models took a long time to engage the wheels and could be operated only by the engineer, Westinghouse’s model worked much faster and could be operated by either the engineer or the conductor. By stopping railcars faster, his air brake permitted trains to travel faster and safer. That same year he organized the Westinghouse Air Brake Company to manufacture and market his air brake. He continued to improve its design over the years and he eventually was awarded more than 20 patents for the air brake and its modifications. When the U.S. Railroad Safety Appliance Act of 1893 made air brakes a required feature on all railcars, Westinghouse’s fortune was assured. Meanwhile, Westinghouse had turned his attention to the communications aspects of railroading. In 1880, he began buying patents for devices that permitted the remote control of signals and switches. He combined the best devices with ones of his own invention and produced an innovative system that made use of both electricity and compressed air. In 1881, he formed the Union Signal & Switch Company to manufacture and market this system, which quickly gained acceptance in the railroad industry.
Electricity and the "War of Currents"
In 1875, Thomas Edison had been a virtual unknown. He had achieved some success with a "multiplex telegraph" system that allowed multiple telegraph signals to be sent over a single wire, but had not yet obtained the recognition he wanted. He was working on a telephone system but was upstaged by Alexander Graham Bell. Edison bounced back quickly from the setback to invent the phonograph, which was a public sensation nobody had dreamed possible and made him famous.
Edison's next step, in 1878, was to invent an improved incandescent light bulb, and consider the need for an electrical distribution system to provide power for light bulbs. On September 4, 1882, Edison switched on the world's first electrical power distribution system, providing 110 volts direct current (DC) to 59 customers in lower Manhattan, around his Pearl Street laboratory.
Westinghouse's interests in gas distribution and telephone switching logically led him to become interested in electrical power distribution. He investigated Edison's scheme, but decided that it was too inefficient to be scaled up to a large size. Edison's power network was based on low-voltage DC, which meant large currents and serious power losses. Several European inventors were working on "alternating current (AC)" power distribution. An AC power system allowed voltages to be "stepped up" by a transformer for distribution, reducing power losses, and then "stepped down" by a transformer for use.
A power transformer developed by Lucien Gaulard of France and John Dixon Gibbs of England was demonstrated in London in 1881, and attracted the interest of Westinghouse. Transformers were nothing new, but the Gaulard-Gibbs design was one of the first that could handle large amounts of power and promised to be easy to manufacture. In 1885, Westinghouse imported a number of Gaulard-Gibbs transformers and a Siemens AC generator to begin experimenting with AC networks in Pittsburgh.
Assisted by William Stanley and Franklin Leonard Pope, Westinghouse worked to refine the transformer design and build a practical AC power network. In 1886, Westinghouse and Stanley installed the first multiple-voltage AC power system in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. The network was driven by a hydropower generator that produced 500 volts AC. The voltage was stepped up to 3,000 volts for transmission, and then stepped back down to 100 volts to power electric lights. The problems inherent in the new AC system were highlighted when Mr. Pope was electrocuted by a malfunctioning AC converter in the basement of his home.  That same year, Westinghouse formed the "Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company," which was renamed the "Westinghouse Electric Corporation" in 1889.
Thirty more AC lighting systems were installed within a year, but the scheme was limited by the lack of an effective metering system and an AC electric motor. In 1888, Westinghouse and his engineer Oliver Shallenger developed a power meter, which they designed to look as much like a gas meter as possible. The same basic meter technology is still used today.
An AC motor was a more difficult task, but fortunately a design was already available. The Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla had already dreamed up the basic principles of a polyphase electric motor.
Tesla and Edison did not get along well. Earlier Tesla had worked for the Edison General Electric Company in Europe, but was unpaid for his service and had to go into labor for a few years. Later, Edison promised Tesla $50,000 if he could redesign electrical dynamos for AC use. When Tesla did this, Edison told Tesla that he had been joking about the money. Edison and Tesla quickly parted company.
Westinghouse got in touch with Tesla, and obtained patent rights to Tesla's AC motor. Tesla had conceived the rotating magnetic field principle in 1882 and used it to invent the first brushless AC motor or induction motor in 1883. Westinghouse hired him as a consultant for a year and from 1888 onwards the wide-scale introduction of the polyphase AC motor began. The work led to the standard modern U.S. power-distribution scheme: three-phase AC at 60 Hertz(cycles per second), chosen as a rate high enough to minimize light flickering, but low enough to reduce reactive losses, an arrangement also conceived by Tesla.
Westinghouse's promotion of AC power distribution led him into a bitter confrontation with Edison and his DC power system. The feud became known as "the War of Currents." Edison claimed that high voltage systems were inherently dangerous; Westinghouse replied that the risks could be managed and were outweighed by the benefits. Edison tried to have legislation enacted in several states to limit power transmission voltages to 800 volts, but failed.
The battle went to an absurd, and some would say tragic, level, when in 1887 a board appointed by the state of New York consulted Edison on the best way to execute condemned prisoners. At first, Edison wanted nothing to do with the matter, declaring his opposition to capital punishment.
However, Westinghouse AC networks were clearly winning the battle of the currents, and the ultra-competitive Edison saw a last opportunity to defeat his rival. Edison hired an outside engineer named Harold P. Brown, who could pretend to be impartial, to perform public demonstrations in which animals were electrocuted by AC power. Edison then told the state board that AC was so deadly that it would kill instantly, making it the ideal method of execution. His prestige was so great that his recommendation was adopted.
Harold Brown then sold gear for performing electric executions to the state for $8,000. In August 1890, a convict named William Kemmler became the first person to be executed by electrocution. Westinghouse hired the best lawyer of the day to defend Kemmler and condemned electrocution as a form of "cruel and unusual punishment." The execution was messy and protracted, and Westinghouse protested that they could have done better with an axe. The electric chair became a common form of execution for decades, even though it had proven from the first to be an unsatisfactory way to do the job. However, Edison failed in his attempts to have the procedure named "Westinghousing."
Edison also failed to discredit AC power, whose advantages outweighed its hazards; even General Electric, formed with Edison's backing in Schenectady in 1892, decided to begin production of AC equipment.
In 1893, in a significant coup, the Westinghouse company was awarded the contract to set up an AC network to power the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, giving the company and the technology widespread positive publicity. Westinghouse also received a contract to set up the first long-range power network, with AC generators at Niagara Falls producing electricity for distribution in Buffalo, New York, 40 kilometers (25 miles) away.
With AC networks expanding, Westinghouse turned his attention to electrical power production. At the outset, the available generating sources were hydroturbines where falling water was available, and reciprocating steam engines where it was not. Westinghouse felt that reciprocating steam engines were clumsy and inefficient, and wanted to develop some class of "rotating" engine that would be more elegant and efficient.
In fact, one of his first inventions had been a rotary steam engine, but it had proven impractical. However, an Irish engineer named Charles Algernon Parsons began to experiment with steam turbines in 1884, beginning with a 10 horsepower (7.5 kW) unit. Westinghouse bought rights to the Parsons turbine in 1885, and began work towards improving the Parsons technology and scaling it up.
Skeptics questioned that the steam turbine would ever be a reliable large-scale power source, but in 1898 Westinghouse demonstrated a 300-kilowatt unit, replacing reciprocating engines in his air-brake factory. The next year he installed a 1.5 megawatt, 1,200 rpm unit for the Hartford Electric Light Company.
Westinghouse then turned his attention to using such large steam turbines to drive big ships. The problem was that such large turbines were most efficient at about 3,000 rpm, while an efficient propeller operated at about 100 rpm. That meant reduction gearing, but building a reduction gear system that could operate at such high rpm and at high power was tricky. Even a slight misalignment would shake the power train to pieces. Westinghouse and his engineers were able to devise an automatic alignment system that made turbine power practical for large vessels.
Westinghouse remained productive and inventive through almost all his life. Like Edison, he had a practical and experimental streak. At one time, Westinghouse began to work on heat pumps that could provide heating and cooling, and even believed that he might be able to extract enough power in the process for the system to run itself.
Modern engineers clearly see that Westinghouse was after a perpetual motion machine, and the Irish and British physicist Lord Kelvin, one of Westinghouse's correspondents, told him that he would be violating the laws of thermodynamics. Westinghouse replied that might be the case, but it made no difference. If he couldn't build a perpetual-motion machine, he would still have a heat pump system that he could patent and sell.
With the introduction of the automobile after the turn of the century, Westinghouse went back to earlier inventions and came up with a compressed-air shock absorber scheme to allow automobiles to deal with the wretched roads of the time.
Westinghouse remained a captain of American industry until 1907, when a financial panic led to his resignation from control of the Westinghouse Company. By 1911, he was no longer active in business, and his health was in decline.
Death and legacy
George Westinghouse died on March 12 1914, in New York City, at age 67. As a Civil War veteran, he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery, along with his wife Marguerite. He was mourned. Although a shrewd and determined businessman, Westinghouse was a conscientious employer and wanted to make fair deals with his business associates. In 1918, his former home was razed and the land given to the City of Pittsburgh to establish Westinghouse Park. In 1930, a memorial to Westinghouse, funded by his employees, was placed in Schenley Park in Pittsburgh. George Westinghouse Bridge is near the site of his Turtle Creek plant. The plaque on it reads:
IN BOLDNESS OF CONCEPTION, IN GREATNESS AND IN USEFULNESS TO MANKIND THIS BRIDGE TYPIFIES THE CHARACTER AND CAREER OF GEORGE WESTINGHOUSE 1846–1914 IN WHOSE HONOR IT WAS DEDICATED ON SEPTEMBER 10, 1932.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Crane, Frank. George Westinghouse: His Life and Achievements. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, 2003. ISBN 0766167054
- Prout, Henry G. A Life of George Westinghouse. New York: Cosimo Publishing, 2005. ISBN 1596050691
- Skrabec, Quentin R., Jr. George Westinghouse: Gentle Genius. Algora Publishing, 2007. ISBN 0875865070
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