The Legend of George Westinghouse

The LegendGeorge Westinghouse was born October 6, 1846, in Central Bridge, New York. He was the eighth child of ten. His mother Emaline Vedder was of Dutch and English stock, while his father George Sr., was German.

A mechanic and an inventor, George Sr., operated a machine shop where he manufactured farm equipment, mill machinery and small steam engines. Young George received most of his education by working in his father’s shop. George briefly attended Union College in Schenectady, New York, where he decided he preferred to experiment in the machine shop rather than read books.

During the Civil War, George served in the United States Navy where he was an engineering officer. While serving on board ship he continued his mechanical experiments by making small gadgets.

After the war George went back to work in his fathers machine shop. It was here in 1865, that George applied for and received his first patent. He developed a rotary steam engine which was an improvement over the common reciprocating motor. Westinghouse was soon attracted by the challenges of improving railroad technology. He studied the problems of the railroads and developed technology to improve their operations.

Two of Westinghouse’s greatest inventions were that of the car replacer and the air brake. The car replacer was a special set of rails used to slide derailed cars back on the tracks. The air brake system was Westinghouse’s most original invention. With an air brake system, trains could now be stopped at a faster and safer speeds.

Drawing on his team of engineers, Westinghouse decided in 1884 to plunge into the new field of electric lighting. At this time the electric industry was dominated by Thomas Edison.

To compete with Edison, Westinghouse bought up the patents of other inventors and converted these into successful products. Westinghouse purchased the alternating current patents of William Stanley, Lucien Goulard and John Gibbs. He also bought a patent from Nikola Tesla for his alternating current motor. Working with Stanley and Tesla, Westinghouse engineers combined these inventions into a coherent system of light and power using alternating current. This new system was first displayed at the 1893 Chicago’s World Fair. It impressed the general public and also convinced professional engineers of the value of the alternating current system.

The true test of the alternating system became apparent when Westinghouse harnessed the energy and transmitted the power of Niagara Falls. This system led way for the large scale generating system created for the New York, New Haven and Hartford railroads in 1906.

Westinghouse went on to develop many more inventions. He acquired some 360 patents for these inventions. Both an ingenious inventor and a shrewd entrepreneur, Westinghouse developed mechanical and electrical inventions that permitted America to emerge as the major industrial nation in the late nineteenth century. As an entrepreneur he supported the creation of electric light and power systems using alternating current.

By 1913 Westinghouse was warned by his doctor of a heart ailment. He retired to rest at his home in Lennox, Massachusetts and died quietly in New York City on March 12, 1914. Curious and creative to the end, he spent his last days designing an electric wheelchair.

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