Businessman, Inventor. He is best known as the inventor of the Westinghouse railway air brake and founder of the Westinghouse Electric Company. He was born George Westinghouse on October 6, 1846, in Central Bridge, NY, the son of a farm machinery manufacturer. After several years working in his father’s Schenectady shops, he joined the Union Army for 2 years during the Civil War before becoming an engineer in the Navy in 1864. He attended college for only 3 months in 1865, dropping out soon after obtaining his first patent on October 31, 1865 for a rotary steam engine. In April of 1869, he obtained a patent for one of his most important inventions, the railway air brake. This device enabled trains to be stopped with fail-safe accuracy by the locomotive engineer for the first time and was eventually adopted worldwide. Before this invention, brakes had to be applied manually on each car by different brakemen when signaled by the engineer. He organized the Westinghouse Air Brake Company in July of 1869 with himself acting as president. Westinghouse saw the potential for electricity and formed the Westinghouse Electric Company in 1884. He obtained exclusive rights to Nikola Tesla's patents for a polyphase system of alternating current in 1888, which is still the basis of all modern electric power generation and distribution, persuading the inventor to join the Westinghouse Electric Company as Chief Engineer. Fears about safety and reliability engendered public opposition to the development of alternating current electricity. Undeterred, Westinghouse proved all his critics wrong, including direct current die-hard Thomas Edison, with one bold stroke. He proved the viability of alternating current electricity once and for all by having his company design and provide the lighting system for the entire Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. This success led to a contract to build 3 huge hydroelectric generators for harnessing the energy of Niagara Falls. Installation on this project began in April of 1895, and by November of 1895 all 3 generators were completed. A year later, engineers at Buffalo closed the circuits that finally completed the process to bring power from Niagara. At the turn of the century, Westinghouse controlled 15 companies worth about $120 million, employing approximately 50,000 workers, but this was not to last. The financial collapse of Westinghouse’s overleveraged empire was one of the more notable fallouts of the Panic of 1907 and caused him to lose control of the companies he had founded. Spending much of his later life in public service, Westinghouse showed signs of a heart ailment by 1913 and was ordered to rest by doctors. After deteriorating health and illness confined him to a wheelchair, he died on March 12, 1914. With a total of 361 patents to his credit, his last patent was granted in 1918, four years after his death.
Bio by: Edward Parsons
Marguerite Erskine Walker Westinghouse
1842–1914 (m. 1867)