George Westinghouse was born on Oct. 6, 1846, in upstate New York. After serving in the Navy aboard the USS Muscoota during the Civil War, he returned to his parents’ home in Schenectady and enrolled at Union College. However, he lost interest in the curriculum and dropped out in his first term.
At the young age of 19, he created his first invention, the rotary steam engine. He also devised the Westinghouse Farm Engine.
At age 21, he invented a device to guide derailed railroad cars back onto the tracks.
After witnessing a train wreck, he invented a railroad braking system using compressed air. The Westinghouse system used a compressor on the locomotive reservoir and a special valve on each car. This invention resulted in the establishment of the Westinghouse Air Brake Company in 1869. The same conceptual design of fail-safe air brakes is also found on heavy trucks.
Prior to 1885, electricity was using only direct current as developed by Thomas Edison. It was Westinghouse who copied a system used in the United Kingdom that used alternating electric current (AC). The AC system proved to be much safer and provided a stronger current. Based on this use Westinghouse formed the “Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company” in 1889.
Westinghouse won the bid to light the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. He used alternating current, beating out a General Electric bid by one million dollars. This World’s Fair devoted a building to electrical exhibits. It was a key event in the history of AC power. Westinghouse demonstrated the safety, reliability and efficiency of a fully integrated alternating current system to the American public.
Westinghouse remained productive and inventive his entire life. Along with Thomas Edison, he had a practical and experimental mind. At one time, Westinghouse began to work on heat pumps that could provide heating and cooling, and he believed that he might be able to extract enough power in the process for the system to run itself.
George Westinghouse died on March 12, 1914, at the age of 67. As a Civil War veteran, he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery, along with his wife Marguerite, who survived him by three months.
Although an outstanding inventor and businessmen, Westinghouse was a fair-minded employer and was well liked by both his employees and business associates. This cannot be said of his competitors during this period in America’s history.