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Historically Speaking: The Gentle Giant of American Industry

American Federation of Labor founder Samuel Gompers once said: “If all business leaders and moguls treated their employees as well as George Westinghouse, there’d be no need for any labor unions.”

By Tom Morrow

George Westinghouse Jr., born Oct. 6, 1846, in Central Bridge, N.Y., was an American entrepreneur and engineer based in Pittsburgh, PA. He invented the railway air brake and was a pioneer of the electrical industry, going up against Thomas Edison to develop “Alternating Current (AC) distribution, which is the standard all over the world.
For more than a century, beginning in 1869, the name “Westinghouse” has been on the labels of everything from industrial machinery to home appliances. Because of Westinghouse’s ingenuity, his products were reliable and trusted. For all of the 20th century well into the 21st century we’ve heard: “You Can Be Sure It It’s Westinghouse.”
At the age of 15, Westinghouse enlisted in the New York National Guard during the Civil War. In 1864, he became an engineering officer in the U.S. Navy.
Westinghouse was 19 years old when he created his first invention, the rotary steam engine. He also devised the Westinghouse Farm Engine. At age 21 he invented a “car replacer”, a device to guide derailed railroad cars back onto the tracks, and a reversible frog, a device used with a railroad switch to guide trains onto one of two tracks.
At about this time, he witnessed a train wreck where two engineers saw one another, but were unable to stop their trains in time using the existing brakes. Brakemen had to run from car to car, on catwalks atop the cars, applying the brakes manually on each car.
In 1868, at age 22, Westinghouse invented a railroad braking system using compressed air. The Westinghouse system used a compressor on the locomotive, a reservoir and a special valve on each car, and a single pipe running the length of the train (with flexible connections) which both refilled the reservoirs and controlled the brakes, allowing the engineer to apply and release the brakes simultaneously on all cars.
The Westinghouse Air Brake Company (WABCO), which continues to this day, was subsequently organized to manufacture and sell Westinghouse’s invention. It was in time nearly universally adopted by railways. Today, trains use brakes in various forms based on Westinghouse’s design. The same conceptual design of fail-safe air brake is also found on heavy trucks.
Westinghouse pursued many improvements in railway signals (which then used oil lamps). In 1881 he founded the Union Switch and Signal Company to manufacture his signaling and switching inventions. He later invented the first automotive shock absorber.
He became interested in the new field of electrical power distribution in the early 1880s. In 1885, Westinghouse became aware of the AC system developed by Nicola Tesla. Edison and Westinghouse were locked into a “Current War” in the late 1880s. The acquisition of Tesla’s patent for a feasible AC motor gave Westinghouse a key ingredient for his AC distribution system.
America discovered the value of Westinghouse’s AC current when he lite the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Westinghouse demonstrated the safety, reliability, and efficiency of a fully integrated alternating current system to the American public by electrifying the entire fair.
Westinghouse’s demonstration that they could build a complete AC system at the World Fair was instrumental in him getting the contract for building a two-phase AC generating system, the Adams Power Plant, at Niagara Falls in 1895. At the same time, a contract to build the three-phase AC distribution system the project needed was awarded to General Electric, which by then had switched from DC to the safer AC distribution. These power plants provided electricity to most of the eastern U.S.
Westinghouse remained productive and inventive almost all his life. Like Edison, he had a practical and experimental streak. At one time, Westinghouse began to work on a heat-pump design that could provide heating and cooling and believed he might be able to extract enough power in the process for the system to run itself. Today, heat-pump units can be found in thousands of homes across America.
Noted for his fair treatment, Westinghouse was the first to give his workers a five-and-a half day work week.
Westinghouse died on March 12, 1914, at age 67. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery, along with his wife Marguerite, who survived him by only three months.
George Westinghouse was one of world’s greatest industrialist who was known to be a gentle giant by his workers who knew and worked with him. The brand name “Westinghouse” continues to this day.


To Learn More about Tom Morrow, the author click here.

E-mail Tom Morrow at: quotetaker@msn.com

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Historically Speaking: The Gentle Giant of American Industry