George Westinghouse (1846 – 1914)

A Man of Seemingly Infinite Energy Searching for True Infinite Energy…

George Westinghouse was born in Central Bridge, New York in 1846.  In 1862 at the age of 15 he volunteered and joined the New York National Guard in the Civil War. He eventually left the Guard and joined the Navy where he would serve until his discharge in 1865. 

Upon returning home Westinghouse launched a career of invention that would last the rest of his life.  His early inventions included a rotary steam engine as well as instruments for farms and railroads.  He was issued his first of hundreds of patents (for his rotary engine) in 1864 when he was just 19 years old!

He would be the ripe old age of 23 when his first major invention was issued a patent in 1869.  It was Patent # 88929 for air brakes for use in trains. It came in response to Westinghouse seeing a train collision and discovering that the trains had no way of stopping all the cars of a train simultaneously.  While this invention was to make Westinghouse a rich man, as railroad tracks and traffic increased dramatically over the rest of the century, still in his twenties, he was just getting started! The area in which Westinghouse would make himself a semi-household name in America was right around the corner… Electricity.

Westinghouse would catch the electricity bug in the 1880s after having experimented with controlling gas pressure with valves. The insight that high pressure gas could be controlled by lowering the pressure via valves (and thus usable for homes) inspired him to imagine that something similar might be possible with electricity, a technology that was only beginning to be utilized. 

In 1886 Westinghouse took on the 800 lb gorilla in the space, indeed, in American innovation, Thomas Edison when he founded the Westinghouse Electric Company.  Edison championed the Direct Current system, or DC, while Westinghouse championed AC, or Alternating Current.  Although there were many technical differences between the two, the primary critical difference was that AC could be sent over long distances without losing much power while DC could not.  In the United States, where people and cities were spread out over vast areas, that ability to cover great distances without significant loss was critical.

The fight between Edison and Westinghouse was brutal, with Edison accurately pointing out that AC is slightly more dangerous to humans, but the efficiency of the AC system for transmission over long distances was too great and eventually AC and Westinghouse were victorious.  It had taken years however, in a battled called the War of the Currents, and along the way Westinghouse hired Nicola Tesla for his team.  Together they demonstrated that AC was in fact safe for households and lit up the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.  That triumph set the stage for Westinghouse’s greatest success, winning – and then successfully executing – a contract for building a power plant to harness the power of Niagara Falls.

The War of the Currents against Edison (and his financier JP Morgan) took their toll on both companies but Westinghouse came out on top after Morgan pushed Edison to adopt the AC standard. The two would sign patent sharing agreements in 1896 that would help the technology roll out more quickly.  Westinghouse would play a major role in rolling out electricity generation over the next decade, but would actually be pushed out of his company in 1907 after the highly leveraged firm was unable to withstand the financial upheaval of one of the worst depressions America had ever experienced and filed for bankruptcy.  He was able to return to control of the firm a year later but stepped down for good three years later in 1911. 

Although primarily known for electricity generation and distribution, Westinghouse was an inventor of wide interest.  Aside from his air brakes and switching systems for trains, his inventions and patents spanned everything from shock absorbers for cars to rotary engines to natural gas delivery to home heating and air conditioning systems to steam turbines & alignment systems.  Despite his hundreds of patents, there was one idea that evaded him until the end.  His white whale was the holy grail of inventors, the perpetual motion machine.  Try as he might, he was never able to produce something that people around him told him, and most scientists today believe, that such a machine would defy the laws of physics and is therefore impossible…

Westinghouse died in 1914 in New York City.  The company he founded would go on to become synonymous with electricity, both on the giant scale of generation and the small scale of home appliances. It would eventually evolve into a multibillion dollar international conglomerate that would evolve into CBS Broadcasting and would sell off all of its energy generation and appliance divisions to companies around the world.  That’s a fitting epitaph for Westinghouse, a man who was never one to stand still.  He was a man of both ideas and actions, envisioning grand ideas and somehow turning most of them into realities, and benefiting much of mankind along the way. 

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