Born on October 6, 1846 in the town of Central Bridge near Albany, New York, George Westinghouse Jr. was the son of a machine shop owner. From his youth, he exhibited talent at machinery and business.
Just 15 when the Civil War broke out, Westinghouse enlisted in the New York National Guard and served until his parents urged him to return home. In April 1863 he persuaded his parents to let him re-enlist. He then joined the 16th New York Cavalry and rose to the rank of corporal. In December 1864, he resigned from the Army and joined the Navy, where he served as Assistant Engineer on the gunboat USS Muscoota through the war’s end.
After his discharge in August 1865, Westinghouse returned to his family and enrolled at Union College in Schenectady. However, he quickly lost interest in the curriculum and dropped out. He had other ideas to pursue. Westinghouse was 19 when he patented his first invention, a rotary steam engine. At age 21 he invented a “car replacer” to guide derailed railroad cars back onto the tracks and a reversible “frog,” a device to switch trains between tracks.
But the Westinghouse invention that revolutionized the railroad industry was the air brake, which finally gave engineers a quick, safe, reliable way to stop their trains. Automatic signaling systems he subsequently developed also greatly improved railroad safety and efficiency.
Over his life, Westinghouse’s creative genius found many other outlets in addition to railroads.
- His conceptualization and inventions for the production and distribution of natural gas unleashed a whole new form of energy.
- After lighting the 1893 Chicago World Fair and harnessing Niagara Falls to generate electricity, his vision of alternating current (AC) for delivering electricity was eventually adopted worldwide.
- Over his 42-year career, Westinghouse was granted 361 patents, averaging one every seven weeks.
As much a visionary entrepreneur as a gifted inventor, he founded the Westinghouse Air Brake Company in 1869, Union Switch and Signal in 1881, the Philadelphia Company in 1884, Westinghouse Electric in 1886, and 60 other companies, several which still survive, some as Fortune 500 enterprises.
A progressive thinker and humanistic industrialist, Westinghouse was the nation’s first employer to implement nine-hour workdays, 55-hour workweeks, and half-holidays on Saturdays. He was a pioneer in providing educational and cultural opportunities for his employees and paid higher wages to get better craftsman and engineers. None of his companies ever suffered a labor strike while he was alive. Indeed, 15 years after he died, 50,000 former employees contributed to erect a monument in his honor.
About him, historian James Van Trump wrote:
“There’s no doubt that Westinghouse was a great man, possibly the greatest who ever lived in Pittsburgh, and certainly greater than the business or financial “wizards” who manipulated other men’s ideas… Perhaps he might better be called an “inspired” mechanic of almost divine proportions, a Messiah of the mechanistic 19th century. What was in his mind and what emerged from his hand turned miraculously into devices that have helped transform the world.”
Westinghouse died March 12, 1914. As a Civil War veteran, both he and his wife are buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
We’ll leave the last word about Westinghouse to Westinghouse himself:
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.