George Westinghouse Biography (1846-1914)

inventor and manufacturer

George Westinghouse was born on October 6, 1846 in New York. He worked in hisfather's factory, where he learned about gears, pistons, and cams. In 1865,after serving in the Union army and navy, Westinghouse received his first ofpatent (one of over 400 patents he would eventually receive), for a small rotary engine. By the age of 30, he had already been president of his first corporation, and had exhibited his air brakes, air compressors, speed indicators,engines, and engine governors at Philadelphia's Centennial Exhibition World's Fair of 1876, alongside inventions of Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison. But he had yet to enter the industry, or found the company, that made hisname a household word.

As business returned to normal following the Civil War, Westinghouse was oneof the few men who became appalled at the lack of safety on the world's railroads. In fact, after nearly four decades of modern railroading in America, adequate braking and signaling systems were yet to be developed. At thistime, railroad cars were still stopped by brakemen who were stationed alongthe length of a train to turn hand brakes on each car after hearing whistle signals from the engineer. Westinghouse saw the need to stop the whole train using one braking system.

Following experiments with pressure-and steam-activated brakes, Westinghousediscovered a magazine article that described a tunnel in Switzerland that wasbeing excavated using compressed air. In 1868 he finished a model of a trainbrake that consisted of an air pump powered by the train's engine, a singlecontrol valve for use by the engineer or brakeman, pipes and flexible connections that ran the length of the train, and mechanical devices on each car toactivate brakes.

Using Westinghouse's new brake invention, an engine and four cars were outfitted for a demonstration in front of railroad officials. Ironically, as the train was arriving for its show, a man was thrown unconscious onto the tracks.The engineer reached for the new brake valve, turned it, and watched as the man's body drew near. Air rushed from the reservoir, through the pipes, and into the cylinders that forced the brakes against the wheels. According to thestory, the train stopped four feet from the man's body. At age 23, Westinghouse founded the Westinghouse Air Brake Company.

Further testing revealed two problems with the Westinghouse braking system. First, if part of the train separated from the engine, the air lines broke andthe brakes became useless. Second, a leak or malfunction of the brakes in one car sometimes led to the failure of all the brakes. To rectify these problems, Westinghouse tried applying another theory: instead of activating the brakes with air, why not activate them with a drop in air pressure? The idea worked and, with only minor changes, Westinghouse's 1872 air brake principles continue to be used today. Westinghouse also developed and patented signaling systems and other safety devices for railways, which led to the founding of the Union Switch and Signal Company in 1880.

In 1883 Westinghouse drilled a small gas well for himself on the grounds of his Pittsburgh estate, Solitude. Two months later, another well was drilled, but this one exploded with such volume that it blew out of control forseveral weeks. The gas was lighted and became known as Westinghouse's Torch.As a result of this mishap, Westinghouse became interested in natural gas asa power source, and devoted himself to engineering a successful transmissionnetwork. He soon founded the Philadelphia Company to provide gas service to the Pittsburgh area and received 38 patents, including one for a gas meter, anautomatic cutoff regulator, and a leak-proof piping system.

Westinghouse was 39 years old when he began exploring the field that would make his name legendary. Though not a new theory, Westinghouse was perhaps thefirst to foresee the importance and versatility of alternating current (AC) over direct current (DC) for electrical power supply. Westinghouse proceeded to buy the patent for the first modern electrical transformer of Frenchman Gaulard and Englishman Gibbs. With the help of engineers such as Nikola Tesla, he improved their experimental designs and proceeded to promote AC power.

During 1866 experimental AC distribution networks were built in Great Barrington, Massachusetts and Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania. The Westinghouse ElectricCompany began producing dynamos, transformers, and electric motors that sameyear. In 1893 Westinghouse received contracts to build the Niagara Falls generating station and to light the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois.

Westinghouse lost most of his fortune in the economic panic of 1907. He diedon March 12, 1914, almost 20 years after bringing electricity to New York City.

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