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Now celebrating its 2nd Century

 

“If someday they say of me that in my work I have contributed something to the welfare and happiness of my fellow man, I shall be satisfied.”  

George Westinghouse

Welcome to historic Westinghouse Park, a public treasure appreciated primarily by Pittsburgh residents of nearby neighborhoods.  The pastoral charms of this 10.2 acre park are immediately apparent, but appreciating its history requires a bit of background.

Situated in the city’s East End in heart of what is now Point Breeze North, adjacent to the neighborhoods of Homewood and Point Breeze, today’s Westinghouse Park was from 1871 to 1914 the site of “Solitude,” the home and estate of inventor and industrialist George Westinghouse Jr.  george and margauerite westinghouse (cir 1869)

Westinghouse was already a wealthy, self-made man at age 25 when he and his wife Marguerite Erskine Walker purchased a house and five-acre parcel between Murtland Street, Lang Avenue, McPherson Boulevard and the Pennsylvania Railroad’s mainline in the then still pastoral East Liberty Valley, six miles from downtown Pittsburgh.

Living along the tracks was a logical place for Westinghouse to settle, since the railroad was a primary customer for the revolutionary air braking system he had designed.  But with trains running past all day and night, Solitude could not have been a quiet place.

They added to the house over the next few years, and when he acquired the adjacent 5-acre parcel, the Westinghouse estate expanded across McPherson Boulevard to Thomas Boulevard.  At that time, Westinghouse had new stables built, with a suite of private laboratories underneath. To get back and forth in private, he had a 220-foot long tunnel dug between his house and his “inner sanctum”.

Solitude

During the four decades Westinghouse lived and worked at Solitude, numerous notable politicians, industrialists, and scientists were regular visitors, including Willam McKinley, Lord Kelvin, and Nicola Tesla, who spent several months in residence at Solitude as he worked on the principles of AC electricity. Other regular guests included notable neighbors, such as   H. J. Heinz and H. C. Frick.

But the most spectacular episode that took place at Solitude was the discovery of a large supply of natural gas in three wells Westinghouse had drilled in his backyard.

Early in the morning of May 22, 1884, drillers he had hired pierced a significant pocket of natural gas at a depth of 1600 feet. The ensuing gusher spewed gas unchecked for a week while Westinghouse devised a method to cap the well.  When the well was contained a week later, he lit a flare at the top of the derrick that burned brightly for months.

Solitude gas derricks

At that time, natural gas was considered too unsafe and dangerous to use. Over the next two years, Westinghouse patented dozens of inventions for the safe distribution, use, and metering of natural gas.  His initial customers included the nearby mansions including Greenlawn (Heinz) and Clayton (Frick).  Indeed, in early 1900’s the mile of Penn Avenue that passes through the East End was called the world’s richest neighborhood.

George Westinghouse’s innovations were instrumental in making natural gas an important new energy source for the world. The rapid development of natural gas both resulted cleaner skies over the Pittsburgh area and attracted new industries.

Westinghouse assigned these natural gas patents to the Philadelphia Company, an inactive utility he controlled, and began acquiring gas fields in Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia. By 1889, the Philadelphia Company was the nation’s largest natural gas producer. Both Equitable Gas and Duquesne Light were created out of  the Philadelphia Company.

After Westinghouse died in 1914, Solitude was bequeathed to his only son, George III, who in turn sold the property to the Engineers’ Society of Western Pennsylvania in 1918. On November 30, 1918, the society deeded the now 10.2-acre property to the city as a public park and a memorial to Westinghouse.

westinghouse park 1937As per stipulations in the deed transfer, Solitude was razed during the summer of 1919, and the park was developed over the ensuing months. The stable/garage stood for 50 years, until it was torn down and replaced with a blank, cinder block park center.

Other than the stone columns that stand at the estate’s old entrance ways, the sole vestiges of Solitude that remain are several copses of magnificent red oak trees, a pair of stately ginkgos, and a spreading black oak.

But that situation is about to change.

The Westinghouse Park 2nd Century Coalition has been organized to improve, explore, and steward it for another 100 years.  The Coalition’s kickoff event was the Centennial Celebration held on December 1, 2018, which elicited the following City proclamation:

Mayorial proclamation

Please scroll through the posts and updates chronicled below to learn more about the past, present, and future of Westinghouse Park.

Westinghouse Park Planning Process Begins

PBNDC:WP2CC logos

Westinghouse Park Planning Process Begins

The Westinghouse Park 2nd Century Coalition ( WP2CC) and the Point Breeze North Development Corporation (PBNDC) are pleased to announce they are working together toward the creation of a master plan for the park.

This partnership creates a mechanism for working with Pittsburgh’s Department of Public Works, Pittsburgh City Planning, other expert entities, and the community to develop the criteria for the City to use in developing a request for proposals for a master plan for the park. The project will run through May 2021.

Funding for the project has been provided by a Neighborhood Initiative Fund (NIF) grant by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA). The grant is supplemented by additional financial support from ICON Development.

Community participation is the essential element in this planning process, and a range of activities will be implemented over the coming months to nurture and quantify that participation. A series of meetings and park events are also envisioned to take place, as allowed by evolving Covid 19 concerns.

Planning will focus on four key elements:

1) Building Community: Westinghouse Park attracts visitors from beyond the immediate Point Breeze North neighborhood. The current connection with Homewood is a decrepit footbridge over the rail/busway, which is made less accessible by multiple flights of stairs. Similarly, relatively few Point Breeze neighbors cross Penn Avenue to visit the park. This project will engage and involve park stakeholders on both sides of those division lines, and seeks to establish and support a positive, cooperative relationship with the new sports facility now being developed at Homewood Field. The planning process will also consider the new residential and commercial development at the former Lexington Technology Park, one block away.

2) Historic and Cultural Significance: “History Happens Here” is more than a motto for the WP2CC. From 1871 to 1918, the Park was the site of “Solitude,” the Pittsburgh home of George Westinghouse, including his private underground laboratory. In addition to a lengthy list of luminaries who visited, myriad historic events actually occurred there. Preliminary archaeological studies indicate the probable presence of numerous artifacts at the site of the house, the lab, and the 220-foot-long tunnel that connects them.

3) Environmental Stewardship: The 10-acre park contains lawns, pathways, and many magnificent trees, including several planted by George Westinghouse some 140 years ago. The park also provides an opportunity for storm water mitigation. In addition to preservation of historic elements of the landscape and beautification of the park overall, planning process participants will explore possibilities for incorporating features such as rain gardens, bio-swales, permeable pathways, and other green infrastructure into the design. Since the park is a primary headland for the Negley Run watershed, PWSA, and ALCOSAN will also participate in the planning process.

4) Recreation and Relaxation: Neighbors and community members currently use the park for myriad reasons, bicycling, strolling, jogging, dog walking, and socializing. Its playground is popular with families. The plan seeks to enhance and expand those activities and experiences. For example, the existing, 60-year-old, concrete block structure, built over the remains of George Westinghouse’s laboratory, is unattractive, decrepit, and insufficient for neighborhood needs.  It should be removed and replaced.

If you are interested in joining the conversation, the first Zoom community meeting to discuss the plan will be held on Monday, August 3 at 7:00 p.m.

To receive a link to joining the meeting, or if you have anyquestions about the project, please send an e-mail to info@pointbreezenorth.com with WESTINGHOUSE PARK in the subject line.

For developments, check  www.westinghousepark.org ) or ( http://www.pointbreezenorth.com).

You can also follow us on Facebook at Westinghouse Park and at Point Breeze North Development Corporation.

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Greetings to Westinghouse Park’s new residents

Marguerite and George 1

We are pleased to welcome this pair of proud relics from the recent fall of a trio of the park’s historic red oaks. They will attract admiring park visitors, both young and old, for many years.

Let’s call them Marguerite and George.

 

BTW – much of the lumber being sawn from the fallen trees will eventually be re-purposed for use in the park, while the chip pile may re-cover some of its long-neglected recreational pathways.

Fallen giants in the park

Screen Shot 2020-05-05 at 4.34.18 PM

As park visitors know Westinghouse Park suffered a major loss early on the morning of May 1, as three of the giant, Solitude-era red oaks in its center came down. Here is a drone video of the devastation and several still shots below.

Estimated to be nearly 150 years old, the oaks were probably planted in the late 1870s when George and Marguerite Westinghouse expanded and landscaped their estate.

Although the magnificent trees were probably near the end of their normal life span, the poor drainage in that part of the park likely contributed to their demise. Also, because they were planted in tight trios, the failure of one brought down the other two, as happened to another group three years ago.

Only two of the distinctive oak groupings remain, at the drive entrance where MacPherson meets Murtland.

At any rate, the immediate question is what is to be done with the fallen trees? We’re happy to report the city is already making arrangements to have them removed and that much of the wood will be salvaged for reuse.  Pittsburgh Urban Tree will select boards to make furniture and other boards may be used in the construction of the park’s new community center.

Thanks to Harvey Butts for these drone images of the fallen giants.

Fallen Trees in Westinghouse Park

The renewed Westinghouse Memorial

 

Memorial 1

On October 6, 2016, the 170th anniversary of George Westinghouse’s birth, Pittsburgh’s tribute to the scientist, inventor, and industrial giant – the Westinghouse Memorial at the bottom of  Schenley Park Drive between Phipps Conservatory and Carnegie Mellon University  – was rededicated.

Memorial 2Led by the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, the project’s $2.7 million cost was been raised through a $500k contribution from the City of Pittsburgh, and over $2 million from foundations and individual donors.  Funds were also raised from nearly 300 donors, including many employees of the present-day Westinghouse Electric and Wabtec Corporation (formed by the merger of Westinghouse Air Brake Company and MotivePower Industries Corporation).

The memorial first opened to the public in 1930, 16 years after Westinghouse’s death. Memorial 4 Originally intended for Westinghouse Park, a decision was made to move it to a more central location. Funded by individual donations from 55,000 workers at his former firms to honor him for his astounding contributions to society, the memorial’s pedigree is first rate, with architects Henry Hornbostel and Eric Fisher Wood, Sr., and artist Daniel Chester French best known for the Lincoln memorial in Washington D.C.

The centerpiece of  the memorial, titled The Spirit of American Youth, is the figure of a young man who is inspired by the life of Westinghouse. Critically acclaimed at the time as “the finest portrayal of American boyhood,” it conveys a clear message: future generations will judge Westinghouse, and they will be astonished and inspired. The statue – and all other bronze work has been hand-restored, cleaned, and preserved as part of the restoration and renewal project.

Enjoy these closer details of the monument, both front and rear.

Memorial 3Memorial 5Memorial 9Memorial 10

 

Memorial 7

 

Memorial 6

 

Fallen pioneer of the atomic age

WestinghouseAtomSmasher.jpg

Westinghouse atomic relic                                                                                             Photo by Karla Boos

The Westinghouse Atom Smasher was a 5 Megavolt Van de Graaff electrostatic nuclear accelerator built and operated by the Westinghouse Electric Corporation at its Research Laboratories in Forest Hills. Built in 1937, the pear-shaped tower stood 65 feet high.

The first industrial sized Van de Graaff generator in the world, it marked the beginning of nuclear research for civilian applications.

Instrumental in the development of practical applications for nuclear science in the generation of electric power, its was used in 1940 to discover the fission of the elements Uranium and Thorium.

The tower was last used in 1958 and in 1985 was designated as a milestone by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

In 2012, the property surrounding the atom smasher was purchased by P&L Investments, which initially expressed an interest in saving it. In 2013, the Young Preservationists of Pittsburgh named it as one of the city’s top 10 preservation opportunities. But three years later, the structure was in significant disrepair. After workers laid bricks to brace the fall, the supports were removed and it was tipped over.

Despite that setback, an effort continues to try and “Save the Bulb.” 

 

New Visions for Westinghouse Park

IMG_0679ARCH DESIGN STUDIO [48:640] INTEGRATION II Spring 2020

David Bear of the Westinghouse Park 2nd Century Coalition orients eleven post-graduate students at CMU’s School of Architecture about the park’s history.  They are participants in a design studio conducted by faculty members Jeff Davis and Matt Huber that will focus on the design of a public building for the park. Each of the students will be producing their own vision of what could be.

Finished concepts will be available for viewing and comment in the park in late April.  Definite date and details to be determined.

While this is not a competition for consideration in the park master planning process currently underway, it can certainly spark and inform imaginations.

Course Overview:
The Integration II Studio is concerned with the detailed development and refinement of architectural design as informed by the integration of structural, enclosure, environmental, and material systems and the process of construction. The student is expected to comprehensively articulate concepts and develop designs with more precision and in greater detail than was required in last semester’s studio.
To enable students in this studio to achieve the ambitious learning objectives, the model of a studio coordinator, a studio consultant, individual studio instructors, and a concurrent lecture/workshop series has been implemented. The studio coordinator and consultant assist the students with the application and synthesis of the knowledge from prerequisite studio and technology courses through workshops, pin-ups, and boardcrits. They will be available for design reviews on a weekly basis. The program and site for the studio’s semester-long project will be the same for all students to encourage dialogue and to maximize learning opportunities from observing multiple approaches to design. The project site is located in a Pittsburgh neighborhood, in order to delve into the influence of specific context and environmental conditions on design decision making.
The work in this studio also includes a sketch problem. The sketch problem is designed to have participants rapidly consider all of the issues to be covered by the studio, to learn to interpret solutions from analysis of source material and to learn to generate/evaluate/formalize design alternatives.

George Westinghouse: The Mystery

Interested in the remarkable man after whom Westinghouse Park is named?  Here is an excellent overview:

George Westinghouse: The Mystery

Our history pages are thick with Mellons, but it was Westinghouse who changed the course of the country

George Westinghouse: The Mystery

It was a dreary fall day when, on a friend’s suggestion, I visited the George Westinghouse Museum in Wilmerding. It is housed inside the former Westinghouse Air Brake offices, a gray stone building with a hint of the medieval, appropriately named “the Castle.”

The edifice was built by a man who lived 68 years and who’s credited with more than 361patented inventions. He founded 60 companies around the world, including two Fortune 500companies. In the pantheon of American investors he is surpassed only by Thomas A. Edison. As an industrialist he deserves admittance into a small circle, including Carnegie, Ford and Rockefeller. As an inventor/​industrialist he stands by himself.

 

Yet strangely we know little about this man. Rockefeller and Ford had their occasionally tarnished reputations burnished by Ivy Lee and Samuel Crowther, respectively, and Carnegie, ever conscious of his public image, did it brilliantly by himself.

Westinghouse never lifted a finger to claim his rightful place in history. He seldom gave interviews and refused but on the rarest of occasions to have his picture taken. To their everlasting credit, Carnegie, Ford and Rockefeller left behind what are now multibillion-​dollar foundations. Despite dying a wealthy man, Westinghouse left no foundation. He gave everything to his heirs.

Westinghouse left no paper trail: no records of interviews, speeches, internal memos or personal letters. Hardly anything survives. Consciously or unconsciously, he pretty much scuttled any attempt to produce a readable or interesting biography, quite necessary to keep his reputation alive and in the public mind. While the shelves groan with biographies of Carnegie, Ford and Rockefeller, we only have two biographies of Westinghouse, the last being published in 1922. Neither is exactly a page-​turner.

Beginnings

The United States economy shot out of the Civil War like a coiled spring. The post Civil War era gave rise to American big business and the first big business was railroads. As economic historian Alfred E. Chandler wrote in “The Visible Hand,” the railroad industry set the pattern for all the major industrial enterprises to come in its wake. It was the railroad industry that created the demand that fueled the growth of the American steel industry. Hard upon the heels of the industrial infrastructure provided by railroads and steel, the electrical revolution played out over the 30-​year period beginning in 1890. Electricity spread industry and commerce into every nook and cranny of America, completing our transition from an agrarian to a manufacturing economy. From Appomattox to Sarajevo, from 1865 to 1914, George Westinghouse was intimately involved with the creation of the world’s largest and most technologically advanced economy.

The eighth of 10 children, Westinghouse was born in a small village near Schenectady, N.Y., in 1846. His father, also George Westinghouse, was of Westphalian stock, the name having been Anglicized from Westinghausen. Westinghouse, Sr. was the proprietor of a small shop manufacturing a variety of machinery for agricultural and industrial applications. The elder Westinghouse was also an inventor of sorts and had seven patents to his name. Ironically, the little shop, proudly bearing the sign “G. Westinghouse & Co.” still stood many years later alongside the main gate at General Electric’s mammoth Schenectady works.

The young Westinghouse went to work for his father at 50 cents an hour in 1860. Metalworking and machinery were in the very air that he breathed. Like countless thousands on both sides of the Civil War, George Westinghouse ran off to enlist in the Union army at the tender age of 15. His father grabbed him back, but two years later, in 1863, with his father’s consent he enlisted in the infantry and soon became an engineer in the Union Navy. He was mustered out of the service at 19. After three months at tiny Union College, his formal education was over and he was back at his father’s shop.

He was 19 when his first patent for a rotary steam engine was issued in 1865. His last patent was issued 53 years later in 1918, four years after his death. Married in 1867 at 20, the Westinghouses died three months apart in 1914, after 47 years of marriage. They’re buried side by side in Arlington National Cemetery. Their only child, George Westinghouse III, worked for his father but moved to California in 1916 and then to Canada shortly after his parents’ death.

Between 1869 and 1873, George Westinghouse was issued more than 20 patents on one of the great inventions of the 19th Century, the revolutionary air brake. And it laid the foundation for his fame and fortune. In developing his phalanx of patents on the air brake he learned from his prior mistakes. His first attempts at patented railroad products were a device to rerail derailed cars, called a “car replacer” and a “frog” to switch a train onto new tracks. They were practical successes but commercial failures. The railroads adopted both but sidestepped his modest patent protection, yielding him little return. But he was a fast learner and didn’t make the same mistake twice.

By 1873, the young Westinghouses had moved to Pittsburgh, a major railroad hub offering low-​cost steel and an ample pool of trained mechanics to work it. For a young man with proven mechanical aptitude, inventive genius and overwhelming ambition, it was the ideal place to be — the Silicon Valley of its day. His attorneys, Bakewell, Christy and Kerr, artfully wove a web of patent protection around the flow of air brake improvements springing from Westinghouse’s drawing board. This time the patents held, and the railroads paid; they paid big. Westinghouse was on his way to be a leading industrialist in a growing and vibrant city.

Steel wheels on steel rails

Before the advent of the air brake, rail cars were stopped by a brakeman on each car turning a heavy wheel to apply the brakes. The original Westinghouse air brake patent, #88929, was dated April 13, 1869. In the next seven years, 38 percent of the nation’s rolling stock used his product. The number of feet required to stop a train going 30 miles per hour dropped from 1,600 feet to 500 feet. And buttressed by a blizzard of 103 inventions from 1869 to 1907, Westinghouse Air Brake held the market like a vise.

The implications of the automatic air brake were staggering. Longer trains running at higher speeds caused rail haulage costs to plummet. With notable improvements over time, the automatic air brake has been used continuously for 119 years — and still counting. But Westinghouse’s contribution to the railroad industry was no single act play. To replace railcar coupling springs he invented the friction draft gear. A.J. Cassatt, president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, once said that the friction draft gear was equal in importance to the air brake.

Increase in railroad traffic necessitated a system of signals and switches that were interlocked with one another to ensure adequate distance between trains and to give the right of way to one train over another, avoiding collisions. From 1881 to 1882, Westinghouse patented 18inventions in switch and signal control. In 1881 he established the Union Switch and Signal Company which was later merged into Westinghouse Air Brake. Backed by critical patents and a broad vision of where the field was going, Union Switch and Signal came to dominate the business.

By century’s end, power signaling and interlocking was the third and final act of the product line that George Westinghouse developed for the railroads. Along with the friction draft gear, signal interlocking unleashed the full potential of the air brake. Together they gave us the modern rail system that we know today.

Interlude

In 1883, Westinghouse became interested in natural gas. As usual, he wasted little time. He applied for 28 patents in 1884 and 1885, with 10 more to follow. His gas inventions included the proportional gas meter, the automatic cutoff regulator, pressure regulator valve and long-​distance gas transmission through a series of increasing diameter lines in lieu of lines of uniform dimension; the list goes on.

His most intriguing invention is innocuously termed: well drilling apparatus, Patent #307606, 1884. A summary reads: “The invention combines rotary cutting apparatus and a fluid-​pressure motor actuating it. …” Sound familiar? With it, Westinghouse came within a hair’s breadth of beating “Big Howard” Hughes to the invention of the rotary drill bit, the foundation of his son’s erratically run empire.

When Westinghouse went into a new industry such as natural gas, he jumped in with both feet. Much to the dismay doubtless of Mrs. Westinghouse and his neighbors, George punched down a well right in his own back yard at Solitude, his residence in Homewood. As usual, he was successful; gas was struck in a moderate amount at 800 feet. This was quite sufficient to serve his own needs and those of a few neighbors; but now caught up in the excitement, Westinghouse pushed on. A few hundred feet later, with a roar, came a flaming blast of gas along with tools and the casing head.

For several weeks he brightened his neighborhood with a roaring torch 100 feet high. He had his own Spindletop. In order to market the inventions, Westinghouse founded the Philadelphia Company in 1882. It produced and distributed natural gas as well as electricity in the Pittsburgh area and for many years ran the streetcar systems of Pittsburgh and San Francisco.

Unlike many other inventors, Westinghouse never sold a patent. He brought his inventions to life with the sole aim of expanding a business enterprise in which he played a triple role of inventor, executive and financier. With Westinghouse it was not so much a matter of money as it was always making things better by solving a succession of technological challenges. To this degree he was an early precursor of the Japanese system of “kaizen,” or continuous improvement. As abruptly as he had thrust himself into the natural gas business, he now moved on to a much bigger challenge.

The main event

Had the life of Westinghouse been tragically foreshortened before the age of 40, his reputation as an inventor of the first rank and industrialist of note would have been secure. Fortunately, all this was merely prelude to an extraordinary 30 years to come. In the words of the famous singer, Al Jolson: “You ain’t heard nothing yet.”

In 1886, the electrical revolution was at hand. America’s greatest inventor — Thomas Edison, the Wizard of Menlo Park –was bringing forth a stunning series of improvements to the telegraph and the telephone, along with the invention of the phonograph, all laying the foundation for his invention of the incandescent light bulb. Having conceived of a product of great practical utility and universal application, Edison was driven to build a generating and transmission system to bring light to the millions. For starters he announced he would light up lower Manhattan. Edison made good on his claim. In September of 1882, Edison’s Pearl Street generating station sprang to life.

The direct current generator had one serious drawback. The low voltage incandescent bulb limited the DC service area to 500 yards. Alternating current operating at high voltage can be transmitted great distances. The missing piece of the puzzle was a transformer capable of “stepping up and stepping down” AC current. Moving with his usual dispatch, Westinghouse bought the U.S. patent to the Gaulard Gibbs transformer. The newly founded (1886) Westinghouse Electric Company improved upon the Gaulard Gibbs transformer turning it into a workable product, which provided the backbone for an AC distribution system. By the end of 1886 Westinghouse Electric had orders for 27 new systems.

Nicholas Tesla was a highly educated Serbian inventor who wrapped his genius in formal attire and Old-​World eccentricities. He worked for Edison briefly but struck out on his own. At the end of 1887 he filed for seven U.S. patents that were among the most important in the history of the electrical industry. They covered AC motors supported by a complete system, including generation, transformers, transmission lines and lighting.

Westinghouse Electric had been patiently putting pieces of this puzzle together, and the company brain trust in Pittsburgh told Westinghouse they could get to the finish line. Instead, Westinghouse, with a Hail Mary pass, went for the main chance. Tesla had it all. He paid Tesla $60,000 in cash and Westinghouse stock and agreed to pay him $2.50 per horsepower on all ACcapacity the company sold. This over-​generous royalty kicker showed even the ever-​optimistic Westinghouse had no idea how big the market would become. It was the best deal he ever made; it was the best deal Tesla ever made.

The lighting contract at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, also known as the Columbian Exposition, held out a blue ribbon prize to Westinghouse. The front-​running competitor was the newly formed General Electric Company backed by Edison and the Morgan interests. The contract called for 92,000 lights to illuminate the fair. Westinghouse, the underdog, was confident that by providing a complete AC system to power the exposition it would be worth the price. It was. Unfortunately, weeks before the fair opened, Westinghouse lost a patent case with GE denying them the use of the GE incandescent bulb. With only days to spare, Westinghouse delivered a new “stopper lamp” which, though inferior to the GE lamp, lit the fair as promised. The blazing lights of the “White City” were seen by millions and read about by tens of millions more.

From Chicago it was on to Niagara Falls. Water has long been used as a direct power source, and in the closing years of the 19th century it began to be used to generate elec– tricity. There was no better opportunity than Niagara Falls. To pursue this enormous project, an East Coast financial syndicate capitalized the Cataract Construction Company in late 1899, with $2,630,000. The proposal called for a mind-​numbing 100,000 horsepower of generating capacity, exceeding all the central station capacity then installed. By 1891 Westinghouse had more than 1,000 AC stations, five times the number of Edison’s DC stations. The Niagara Falls contract was sure to settle the question of leadership once and for all. After six months of twists and turns, including purloined Westinghouse blueprints that found their way to GE and a futile attempt on the part of the Cataract Company to design its own generators, by October of 1893Westinghouse had the contract.

One more piece of the puzzle remained. Niagara Falls was not a lighting plant like Columbian Exposition’s “White City;” it was a power plant. The bulk of the power generated at Niagara Falls had to go to Buffalo and beyond. The power was stepped up and then stepped down to 440 volts and delivered at first to Buffalo streetcars and then throughout the city. The long-​distance transmission of AC power was now a proven reality. The twin triumphs of the Columbian Exposition and Niagara Falls were, in the words of the Duke of Wellington on Waterloo: “A near thing.” George Westinghouse was intimately involved at every stage of the game. His technological versatility, his entrepreneurialism, his manufacturing capability, and above all, his force of personality carried the day.

This triumph was all the more remarkable in the face of the dire financial straits in which he found himself. The collapse of the British Barings Bank in 1891 tightened the credit markets, which hit home just as Westinghouse Electric was riding a surge of growth with inadequate capital. Financially, Westinghouse simply cut it too thin. Here he stands in sharp contrast to fiscally prudent Andrew Carnegie who was always prepared to ride out a downturn and gain ground on his rivals at the same time. Turned down by Pittsburgh bankers in 1891, Westinghouse got the money he needed in New York, but a critical stumbling block was the generous royalties he had agreed to pay Tesla. In a dramatic gesture Tesla tore up his contract, thus saving Westinghouse Electric from reorganization and the loss of control by its founder. In the later years of Tesla’s life this action condemned him to relative poverty.

After Niagara Falls, Westinghouse Electric grew to be a major industrial corporation. By 1907sales had reached $35 million, equivalent to $700 million today. The financial panic of 1907struck Westinghouse hard. Westinghouse lost control, and the East Coast bankers put their own man in to rein in the expansionist bent of the founder. By 1910 Westinghouse was no longer on the board. As he traveled from Homewood to Wilmerding, the sight of the mammoth works at East Pittsburgh was always painful.

Taking his measure

As an inventor Westinghouse was second only to Thomas Edison — a close second. For a 49-​year period, Westinghouse produced on average one invention every seven weeks — more than 361 in all. He founded 60 companies, a number of them significant, including two Fortune 500companies. At its peak the Westinghouse Air Brake Company ranked 185th in 1957. Westinghouse Electric was the 13th largest industrial corporation in America in 1955, 1959 and 1971. Although he lost control of the electric company in 1907, at his death he left an estate of $50 million, or the equivalent of $1 billion today.

Westinghouse was also recognized as one of the most progressive industrial employers. He built the town of Wilmerding and provided it with a host of services for his Air Brake employees. He was the first major Pittsburgh industrialist to reduce the workweek from six to 5 12 days. There were no Homestead strikes in his legacy.

It’s not surprising that patent law makes frequent mention of: “The state of the art.” Inventions, while aimed at practical matters, are to a degree art and, by extension, the inventor is an artist. Inventors, by and large, don’t make good business men. Henry Ford is a stunning exception, but as an inventor he falls far short of Westinghouse, and of course, as an industrialist he was incomparably superior. The remarkable thing about Westinghouse is how well he balanced his extraordinary talents. In this respect he is almost unique in the annals of American economic history. Despite doing everything possible to leave no footprints and thus diminish his reputation, proper due diligence fast brings us to the conclusion that he was Pittsburgh’s preeminent industrial figure. To take a refrain from a popular song of the 1960s, “The Wichita Linemen,” George Westinghouse is all around us today “we can hear him singing in the wires.”

The writer thanks Ed Clarke, Ed Reis and Bill Kassling for their help in the research and preparation of this story.

 

William S. Dietrich II

Dietrich was a native of Pittsburgh, who wrote about Pittsburgh history and its greatest industrial leaders and historic philanthrophists. Bill joined that group shortly before his death in 2011, leaving more than $500 million to a variety of Pittsburgh institutions. He received his undergraduate education at Princeton, and earned a doctorate in political science from the University of Pittsburgh in 1984. He spent his entire business career with Dietrich Industries from 1961 to 2003, eventually serving as president and CEO, and then as non-​executive chairman. He is the author of “In the Shadow of the Rising Sun: The Political Roots of American Economic Decline.”