Home / Tom Morrow / Historically Speaking: ‘You Can Be SURE if it’s Westinghouse’
Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: ‘You Can Be SURE if it’s Westinghouse’

By Tom Morrow

During the last half of the 19th century, and the first 70 years of the 20th century, the home products carrying the “Westinghouse” label was a household name millions of consumers in industry and the general public depended upon.

George Westinghouse, Jr., born Oct. 6, 1846, was an American entrepreneur and engineer who invented the railway air brake and was a pioneer of the electrical industry, gaining his first patent at the age of 22.

Westinghouse was one of Thomas Edison’s main rivals in the early implementation of the American electricity system. Westinghouse’s electricity distribution system, based on alternating current (AC), ultimately prevailed over Edison’s direct current (DC).

During the Civil War, Westinghouse served as Acting Third Assistant Engineer on a Union gunboat.

Westinghouse was 19 years old when he created his first invention, the rotary steam engine. He also devised the Westinghouse Farm Engine. At age 21 he invented a “(rail) car re-placer,” a device to guide derailed railroad cars back onto the tracks, and a reversible frog, a device used with a railroad switch to guide trains onto one of two tracks.

Westinghouse witnessed a train wreck where two engineers saw one another, but were unable to stop their trains in time using the existing brakes. Brakemen had to run from car to car, on catwalks atop the cars, applying the brakes manually on each car. This led him in 1869, at age 22, to invent a railroad braking system using compressed air. The Westinghouse system used a compressor on the locomotive, a reservoir and a special valve on each car, and a single pipe running the length of the train (with flexible connections) which both refilled the reservoirs and controlled the brakes, allowing the engineer to apply and release the brakes simultaneously on all cars.

The basic system design is still in used on today’s railroads as well as heavy trucks. As a result, he founded the Westinghouse Air Brake Company. Westinghouse pursued many improvements in railway signals (which then used oil lamps). In 1881 he founded the Union Switch & Signal Company to manufacture his signaling and switching inventions.

Westinghouse’s interests in gas distribution and telephone switching led him to become interested in electrical power distribution. In 1884 he started developing his own DC lighting system and hired physicist William Stanley to work on it. In 1885, Westinghouse became aware of the new European AC systems.

The expansion of Westinghouse’s AC power distribution system led him into a bitter confrontation with Edison in a feud that became known as the “War of Currents.” The “war” would end with financiers led by J. P. Morgan, pushing Edison Electric towards AC and pushing out its founder. The surviving company became known as “General Electric.”

In 1893, George Westinghouse won the bid to light the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago with alternating current, beating out a General Electric bid by $1 million. Westinghouse then developed steam turbines for maritime propulsion made practical for large vessels.

With the introduction of the automobile after the turn of the century, Westinghouse went back to earlier inventions and devised a compressed air shock absorber for automobile suspensions, a system still in use today.

The name “Westinghouse” became a house-hold word during the mid-20th century up to the present, noted for kitchen appliances, washers and dryers, as well as radios and television sets. The term “Laundromat” was coined for the first automatic clothes washing machine on the market in the 1940s.

George Westinghouse died on March 12, 1914, in New York City, at age 67. As a Civil War veteran, he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Westinghouse was a conscientious employer and wanted to make fair deals with his business associates. Labor leader Samuel Gompers was quoted in saying, “… if all businessmen treated their employees like Mr. Westinghouse, there would be no need for labor unions.”

Get Tom’s latest book, Kingdom of The Tall Corn: The History of an Iowa Farming Community. Available now on Amazon.com