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George Westinghouse

by Ron Kurtus (revised 23 October 2011)

George Westinghouse (1846-1914) became famous as the inventor of the railroad air brake. He later excelled as a businessman through his Westinghouse Electric Company, which became a world leader in providing electrical power and appliances. He lost his business in a financial downturn and died shortly afterward.

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Achievements through the years

George Westinghouse had many achievements at the various stages in his life.

Birth - 19 years: 1846-1865

Westinghouse was born in 1846 in New York. His father was a manufacturer of farm implements, so George became interested in machines at an early age.

In 1865, at the age of 19, Westinghouse received his first patent for a rotary steam engine. That same year he invented a device for replacing derailed freight cars on their tracks.

Ages 20 - 39: 1866-1885

A few years later he invented the railroad air brake, which greatly improved railroad safety and brought him riches. He then invested in various business ventures.

George Westinghouse - inventor

George Westinghouse - inventor

Ages 40 - 49: 1886-1895

Around the time he turned 40 years old, Westinghouse turned to exploiting the new need for electrical power and devices.

Started Westinghouse Electric Company

With the movement toward using electricity, and hearing of Nikola Tesla's work with alternating current (AC) electricity, he founded Westinghouse Electric in 1886. Its mission was to commercialize alternating current as the standard for electrical transmission.

Westinghouse purchased the Tesla's AC motor and dynamo patents and hired him to improve and modify the dynamo for use in the power system. Westinghouse also completely funded Tesla's research and offered him a generous royalty agreement on future profits.

Westinghouse then won the coveted contract to harness Niagara, bidding half of what Edison bid for a DC system.

Westinghouse built power plants and transmission lines, proving once and for all that AC power was an economical and workable system, while Edison's impractical DC never got very far off the ground. Westinghouse used the polyphase system to harness the power of Niagara Falls in a hydroelectric plant.

Beats out Edison's GE

Once the new system was ready, advocates of direct current (DC) power—namely Thomas Edison and his Edison General Electric Company—set out to discredit AC power. Because AC could be distributed over long distances at high voltage, it soon won out over the DC system.

When he was 47, public acceptance of AC power came soon after Westinghouse dramatically proved its advantages at the 1893 World Exposition in Chicago.

In 1895, the Niagara AC power system transmitted electricity to Buffalo, NewYork, over 20 miles away. This was something that would have been almost impossible with DC current.

The AC system Tesla developed for Westinghouse is still the standard used today. The Westinghouse Co. used AC to beat out Edison's General Electric Co. and force them to scrap DC.

Ages 50 - 59: 1896-1905

Over the next decade, Westinghouse aggressively developed technology for generating and transmitting electric power. He applied it in industrial and consumer applications, such as the streetcar and elevator.

Most of the Westinghouse factories were located in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania area, and associated companies were established throughout the world.

Ages 60 - 69: 1906-1914

After he turned 60, Westinghouse's world started to unravel.

Lost company

During the financial panic of 1907, the Westinghouse Co. was caught in a takeover bid from financier J.P. Morgan. Westinghouse's company was financially weakened, and he had to rescind on the royalty contract he had signed with Tesla.

Westinghouse explained that his company would not survive if it had to pay Tesla his full royalties, so he persuaded Tesla to accept a buyout of his patents for $216,000. This was much less than the $12 million the patents were worth at the time.

Failure destroyed him

Efforts Westinghouse made to save his business failed, and soon he lost most of his control over his industrial empire.

The failure destroyed him. George Westinghouse died a few years later in 1914 in New York City at the age of 69.

Westinghouse Company without him

After Westinghouse lost control of his company, the company continued without him to become an important world industrial entity.

The company slogan was "You can be sure if it's Westinghouse." They produced electric lights, refrigerators, washing machines, and other electrical products of convenience.

The company pioneered radio programming, recognizing that broadcasting was an application for electricity. At first its broadcast operations served mainly to promote sales of radios. Later, broadcasting became serious business, as the company built its Group W chain of radio and television stations.

After purchasing CBS in 1995, the company changed directions and the Westinghouse name and product lines were abandoned.

Lessons learned

Westinghouse had an inquisitive and creative mind and was able to invent many useful devices. He was also quick to jump into the latest business trends.

His personal failure was probably due to too much speculation during the market boom at the turn of the century. Many businesses were bought out during the market crash in 1907, and many people were financially ruined.

Summary

George Westinghouse was an inventor and businessman that help to bring the electrical age to the world. The company he founded led its industry for several decades after he had lost control of it.


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Resources and references

Ron Kurtus' Credentials

Websites

George Westinghouse - Biography from Wikipedia

George Westinghouse inventor - History of Westinghouse as an inventor

About George Westinghouse - The Wilmerding News, September 30, 1904

Inside Westinghouse Works - About Westinghouse's factory

Also, Westinghouse's career was intertwined with that of Edison and Tesla:

Thomas Edison's Life

Nikola Tesla's Life

"No Sure Thing" by Dan Ruby, New Media Magazine, January 13, 1998. www.newmedia.com.

Biography Resources

Books

Top-rated books on George Westinghouse


Questions and comments

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