‘You Can Be Sure if It’s Westinghouse’
By Tom Morrow
Those of us who’ll never see sixty again remember the name, “Westinghouse” – it was in our everyday society, homes and industry. It was a nameplate attached to refrigerators, stoves, various kitchen utensils, cooling fans, radios, television sets and more. The name was brought into the world of business by one of America’s great industrialists: George Westinghouse.
Westinghouse is partially responsible for the way we light our homes, manufacturing and powering almost everything electric by using “alternating current” (AC). Westinghouse also is known for inventing an air brake system, which made the world’s railroads safer in addition to revolutionizing the world’s electricity distribution.
Westinghouse was one of the most prolific inventors and businessmen of the Industrial Revolution. He founded the Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company leading the way to “alternating current,” (AC) electric power producing generators.
Westinghouse dropped out of college in 1865, when he received his first patent for the invention of a rotary steam engine. His major contributions continued with inventions revolving around railroad safety, notably his compressed air brake system (patented in 1869) that functioned as a fail-safe to halt trains. Westinghouse’s air brake was a replacement for the troublesome manual-braking method and eventually became a standard of safety not only in North America, but throughout the world.
After establishing his air brake company, Westinghouse turned to improving railroad signaling devices through the formation of his Union Switch & Signal Company.
Westinghouse’s interest in AC technology came after working on natural gas control and distribution projects, in which he invented a valve that took high-pressureed gas down to low-pressure use. The principal is similar to AC. He turned his attention to electricity, believing a similar approach could distribute electric power for wide-spread industrial and domestic use.
He was confident that developing AC technology — converting high voltage to low through a transformer — was the way of the future. In 1886, he founded the Westinghouse Electric Company. It was a bold move considering the many businessmen who had invested in competitive inventor Thomas Edison’s “direct current” DC system.
Edison and his supporters waged a smear campaign against Westinghouse and the AC system, telling the public it was “dangerous” and a health hazard. The fierce competition between Edison and Westinghouse spilled into a legal battle known as “The Seven Years War.” Still, Westinghouse had the upper hand and ultimately proved AC the better technology. He not only bought Nikola Tesla’s AC technology patents, he convinced Tesla to work with him. Previously, Tesla had worked for Edison, but the old inventor refused to recognize AC as the better delivery system. Westinghouse also laid out the case for AC’s safety when, in 1893, Westinghouse (and Tesla) lit up the World Fair in Chicago using AC generators. Not long after, Westinghouse won the bid to build a large-scale generating system that would use the hydro (water) power of Niagara Falls, converting it into electrical energy for a multitude of purposes. The system distributed electricity to several Northeastern states.
Although Westinghouse’s business empire prospered for years, a disastrous financial panic in 1907 through 1911, took its toll forcing him to sever all company ties. His health failed, and he died on March 12, 1914.
In his lifetime, Westinghouse held more than 300 patents and owned some 60 companies. Within a decade of founding the Westinghouse Electric Company, the inventor would accrue a company net worth of $120 million, employing some 50,000 workers at manufacturing entities throughout the United States, Canada and Europe.
George Westinghouse’s name has re-emerged in today’s society in a new movie, “The Current War” which features him, Edison, and Tesla in their war over electricity – whether or not the nation should be powered by “Direct Current,” or “Alternating Current.”
The film revolves around the late 19th century battle between Edison and Westinghouse, who were fighting for the eventual system that would power modern America.
The film stars noted actors Benedict Cumberbatch (Edison), Michael Shannon (Westinghouse), and Nicholas Hault (Tesla) portraying three principled and passionate men with wildly different personalities and interpretations for electrifying the world. It really was a war that left “Alternating Currents” as the winning system we use today.
The name, George Westinghouse is important to America and the world. Thomas Edison was, indeed, important to our everyday lives, but he wasn’t a very nice man. Nikola Tesla, who worked behind the scenes making everything work, mostly has been forgotten. The winner was famed and powerful financier J.P. Morgan, who ended up with the three men’s patents. It cost the financial titan mere pennies on the dollar by covering Edison’s and Westinghouse’s debts. Morgan took those patents and formed “General Electric.”
As powerful as GE would become, the advertising slogan, “You Can Be Sure If It’s Westinghouse” remains with us today.
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