George Westinghouse: Inventions & Biography

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

George Westinghouse was an American inventor of the 19th century. In this lesson, we'll examine his inventions and see what impact they had on American history.

George Westinghouse

It's amazing how much a good idea can change the world. Where would we be without the internet, or television, or phones? How about electricity? We take electricity for granted today, but this only became part of our daily lives thanks to a series of inventors and innovators who made it possible. One of those inventors was an American named George Westinghouse. Throughout his life, Westinghouse would found 60 different companies to produce and sell his many inventions; if just one good idea can change the world, then we can begin to appreciate the contribution of George Westinghouse.

George Westinghouse had a great mind for invention, and a great mustache for the 19th century
George Westinghouse

Early Life

George Westinghouse was born in Central Bridge, New York back in 1846 as the eighth of ten children. With the Industrial Revolution sweeping across the United States, George's father created an agricultural machinery and steam engine business, introducing George to industrial technology. George served in the Union Army during the Civil War, went to college for a bit, and then came back to his father's store in 1865 and kept pursuing his interest in machines. During this time, he became more and more fascinated by railroads and steam engine trains, things that were being largely embraced by the United States after the war. In his father's shop, George invented a rotary steam engine, earning him his first patent, as well as a device to help upright freight trains that had derailed. His career as an inventor had begun.

Air Brakes and Trains

Westinghouse's fascination with trains and railroads inspired him to come up with what was to be his first major commercial success. This breakthrough came in the form of an air brake, a system of compressed air used to automatically slow down trains. At the time, all trains used manually-operated brakes, which could be unreliable and prone to both human and mechanical error. Westinghouse's air brakes were an automated mechanism that worked much more efficiently. In 1869, Westinghouse founded the Westinghouse Air Brake Company to manufacture and sell these brakes. They were immediately successful, and in fact changed people's ideas about train safety so much that Congress passed the Railroad Safety Appliance Act of 1893, requiring the use of air brakes on all American trains. In fact, to this day modern trains use an air brake system almost identical to Westinghouse's as a backup safety measure.

Trains continued to provide constant inspiration for George Westinghouse. He continued to invent and innovate, using both his own ideas and purchasing patents of other engineers, and he produced more devices that redefined train travel. One big one was a system using both air compression and electricity to more efficiently operate the signals and switches in train yards. This, plus his entry into natural gas technology when a well was drilled in his house's yard, focused his attentions on energy, and specifically electricity.

Westinghouse and the AC Current

As he became more interested in electricity, still a young technology at the time, George Westinghouse became convinced that the dominant form of electrical distribution, called direct current, or DC, was insufficient. Westinghouse had seen that various forms of alternating currents in both air compression and natural gas were more efficient, so he started looking for ways to apply this to electricity. The answer came in alternating current (AC) systems being developed in London. Westinghouse purchased the transformers used in London to manage alternating current and started trying to implement them in Pittsburgh. With the help of a few other American engineers, they made the first fully functional AC generator.

1888 advertisement for Westinghouse Electricity and alternating current
Westinghouse Electricity

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