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American Dynamo: The Life of George Westinghouse

This post was written by 2021 Junior Fellow Hannah Pfeifer.

George Westinghouse, half-length portrait, facing front

George Westinghouse, between 1900 and 1914. Joseph G. Gessford, photographer.

“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.” – George Westinghouse, Jr.

What do you think of when you hear the name Westinghouse? Perhaps you think of the revolutionary air brake patent that ensured safe train travel; maybe you remember reading about the Electric War “fought” between George Westinghouse and Thomas Edison; or possibly Westinghouse stands out as the genius industrialist who powered homes, fairs, and streets. Regardless of how you know Westinghouse, it is a guarantee you have used something invented by George Westinghouse himself or under the Westinghouse name. With nearly 400 patents to his name, Westinghouse is a beacon of Gilded Age industry.

George Westinghouse, Jr. (1846-1914) was born in Central Bridge, NY to Emeline and George Westinghouse, Sr., the latest in a family of inventors. His father designed and manufactured agricultural tools, creating an environment that taught Westinghouse about the importance of technological innovation and spurring his lifelong passion for engineering and mechanics. Exploring new technologies was something he loved. Any formal plans for education were paused when, in 1862 at age 15, Westinghouse enlisted in the New York National Guard, ready to fight in the American Civil War. He returned home soon after at his parents’ request, but re-enlisted a year later, joining the Union’s 16th New York Cavalry. Commissioned as an Acting Third Assistant Engineer in the Union Navy, Westinghouse served in this position for the final year of the war before being honorably discharged in August 1865.

photograph of large factory in the distance with smaller buildings and homes in the foreground

Westinghouse Electrical Works, East Pittsburg, PA, between 1900-1910. Keystone View Company.

After his service, Westinghouse returned to the capital region of New York and enrolled at Union College to study engineering. He became dissatisfied with the curriculum and dropped out to pursue personal studies and engineering work, which paid off quickly. At 19, Westinghouse received a patent for a rotary steam engine, the first of his 361 total patents and an invention he continued to improve. His next two patents, the reversible frog and the air brake, drove him even deeper into the world of industrialism. Both inventions were spurred by the constant American and British locomotive accidents, such as the Angola Horror and the Shohola train wreck. Railways needed easier mechanisms for switching trains from track to track, which is exactly what Westinghouse’s reversible frog– or “car-replacer”–did. Many wrecks also resulted from slow braking, since car brakes were individually set by engineers. In 1869, Westinghouse patented a fail-safe air brake system which let locomotives brake faster to prevent collisions. Engineers triggered the brake from one location and if one car’s brakes malfunctioned, the fail-safe system stopped the whole train. That same year, Westinghouse opened his first factory, the Westinghouse Air Brake Company.

Westinghouse became a major entrepreneur during the Industrial Revolution, opening 61 factories and sub-companies globally. Each company manufactured machine parts patented either by Westinghouse or others under his umbrella, such as Nikola Tesla, Peter Cooper-Hewitt, William Stanley, and Bertha Lamme, who has been described as the country’s first female electrical engineer. Roughly 6,000-9,000 employees worked at the three factories in Pittsburgh, the Westinghouse capital. Next to the factories was the company town, Wilmerding, where Westinghouse built a YMCA, developed continuing education and training programs, and encouraged employee recreation time. He was the first industrialist to give off Saturday afternoons in addition to Sundays, more time for rest and recreation, which improved employee productivity. There were even pension, unemployment, and home ownership plans that helped employees also be successful outside of the factory.

picture of a mansion with canopy over the windows with a tree in front

Westinghouse’s home “Solitude” in Pittsburgh. Image of from George Westinghouse; his life and achievements by Francis E. Leupp, p. 123.

While Westinghouse was in charge, few strikes occurred, a sign of employee contentment and a result of Westinghouse’s general willingness to listen to employee concerns. However, in 1903, a strike led to Westinghouse replacing hundreds of employees rather than talk with strikers. The strike ended when they realized Westinghouse would not budge. Despite this incident, he was a benevolent industrialist compared to the likes of fellow Pittsburgh tycoons Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick.

Westinghouse shifted his focus from frogs and air brakes to new electro-pneumatic railway signals which ran on electric and gas power rather than the antiquated oil lamps signalmen used before. The Union Switch & Signal Company was the first to make these new tools for train safety. Westinghouse’s use of natural gas to power signal lights resulted from a passion project in Pittsburgh’s Point Breeze neighborhood. There, Westinghouse built his home, “Solitude.” The magnificent mansion housed the Westinghouses when they were in the city, which was often, despite a penchant for traveling. By 1884, Solitude became known for another reason: it was the site of Westinghouse’s natural gas experiments. Westinghouse was interested in trying to harness the power of what was then a feared substance. Workers opened a ground vent to release the gas that inspired Westinghouse gas meters and stopcocks to measure and control gas. At one point, he even set a burst of gas on fire just to amaze guests. For Western Pennsylvania, Westinghouse’s developments made using natural gas safer, and significantly expanded the region’s gas industry, as his inventions would do with water power farther north.

“The alternating current will kill people, of course. So will gunpowder, and dynamite, and whisky, and lots of other things; but we have a system whereby the deadly electric current can do no harm unless a man is fool enough to swallow a whole dynamo.”  – George Westinghouse, Jr.

For his electrical innovations, Westinghouse originally used direct current, but soon became interested in the safer alternating current electricity which was popular among European inventors. Water turbines became an important Westinghouse product, because water has high amounts of potential energy just waiting to be released. To harness this energy, Westinghouse opened multiple American-based hydroelectric companies, the main one being the 1895 hydroelectric plant at Niagara Falls, NY. Like Westinghouse, inventors and electrical engineers in 1880s and 90s America were determined to spread electricity nationwide. This led to the Electric War, a race to promote electricity and patented inventions to the American people. A major part of this “war of the currents” was bidding on electricity contracts. Westinghouse and Edison’s General Electric Co., then majority owned by financier J.P. Morgan, were the main American competitors. Each submitted bids for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Westinghouse underbid General Electric and won the contract to electrify the “White City,” thus increasing Westinghouse Electric’s popularity. Westinghouse then won a bid to power the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, where a series of short films about the Westinghouse Works in Pittsburgh were shown. The successful bids and films helped ensure Westinghouse’s dominance until the 1907 financial crash led to Morgan acquiring the companies.

During these decades of wealth, George Westinghouse had one very important person by his side: Marguerite Erskine Walker. Westinghouse and Walker met on a train trip, the perfect place for a locomotive aficionado to start a romance. After checking out the love-struck man’s references, the young socialite from Roxbury, NY decided she liked him too. The pair’s swift courtship led to marriage in 1867. From then on, Walker was Westinghouse’s partner in life and business. In 1883, Walker gave birth to the couple’s only child, a son named George Westinghouse III. The family’s Massachusetts summer home was named “Erskine Park” in Walker’s honor and served as a breezy hideaway far from industrial Pittsburgh and the Westinghouse factories.

George Westinghouse left his companies in 1911 and passed away from heart failure in 1914. Marguerite Erskine Walker followed only three months later, likely heartbroken and depressed at losing the man who wrote daily telegraphs to her on his travels. Westinghouse is buried at Arlington National Cemetery in recognition of his Civil War service. The Westinghouse businesses evolved into other corporations, such as the CBS Corporation and Viacom. Westinghouse successor companies remained involved in global power production, turning to nuclear energy and television cable development in the late twentieth century.

The Westinghouse name also lives on in a memorial dedicated to the industrial giant and innovator in Pittsburgh. Paid for entirely by former Westinghouse employees, the memorial is in Schenley Park near Westinghouse Park which sits on the former site of Solitude. It features three plaques: including one by the sculptor Daniel Chester French, which describe Westinghouse’s achievements in engineering and invention, as well as  a statue, also sculpted by French,  of a young man who stands facing them, a symbol for future generations who will learn and be inspired by George Westinghouse, Jr. So the next time you flick on a light switch or turn up the heat in winter, think of Westinghouse and how his legacy powers your life.

Resources, Collections & Further Reading

One Comment

  1. Constance Carter
    July 2, 2021 at 10:07 am

    Fascinating–makes me want to delve into Westinghouse’s other patents–to see what he might have done in the area of household technology. Thanks so much for this most interesting and informative post.

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