Inventor, innovator, entrepreneur – George Westinghouse was more than just a second-tier competitor to Thomas Alva Edison.
For many, George Westinghouse is best remembered for his role as Thomas Alva Edison’s arch-rival in the infamous late-19th century “War of Currents,” which found the two inventors locked in an entrepreneurial duel to determine whether America – and, indeed, the world – would be powered by AC (alternating current) or DC (direct current) electricity. Ultimately, Westinghouse’s AC proposal won the day, and everything from lethal electric chairs to kitchen appliances to the charger for your smartphone runs on it.
But Westinghouse’s achievements weren’t limited to the adoption of AC power. Let’s take a quick look at some of his most notable accomplishments.
For more on the acheivements of Westinghouse and other railroad pioneers, check out Trains: Two Centuries of Innovation on MagellanTV.
Railroad Train Air-Brake System
Westinghouse’s first truly important invention was the air-brake system for railroad cars. The story goes that witnessing a train wreck when he was a young man made an indelible impression on him. The trains could have avoided the collision if only the engineers had had the means to apply the brakes without depending on conductors to do it manually, car-by-car. Westinghouse invented a system that solved this problem by using compressed air to trigger the brakes all at once, thus contributing to the safety, efficiency, and expansion of 19th-century railroads.
Founding and Expanding Companies
Westinghouse parlayed the air-brake invention by creating new railroad signal systems and founding the Union Switch and Signal Company, which made him a fortune. It was this wealth that provided the foundation for his becoming a true “captain of industry.”
In 1886, Westinghouse established the Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company to develop and market his electrical inventions. Building upon the adoption of AC power as the widespread standard for transmitting electricity, the company quickly became a major player in the expansion of electricity generation and distribution systems. It bought out some rivals and licensed its patents to others, all the while engaging in periodic skirmishes with Edison and his businesses (which ultimately became General Electric).
Over time (and for decades after Westinghouse’s resignation), the company’s technological innovations contributed significantly to electric lighting, industrial machinery, consumer products, hydroelectric power, nuclear power, and many other applications. Eventually renamed Westinghouse Electric Corporation, the company grew enormously and became one of the most recognizable brands in the world.
(Credit: lebone, via Pixabay)
The Legacy of George Westinghouse
Westinghouse’s resignation from his company came as a result of the financial panic of 1907. He stayed active in business for several years, but declining health finally moved him to the sidelines. He died in 1914 and was buried in the Bronx, New York. However, because he was a Civil War veteran, his remains were eventually moved to Arlington National Cemetery.
Over the course of his lifetime, George Westinghouse secured 361 patents, the last one posthumously in 1918. He left a remarkable legacy of invention and innovation that few have exceeded in the modern age.
Title Image credit: Joseph G. Gassford, via Wikimedia Commons