Young George George and his wife
Born on October 6, 1846, in Central Bridge, NY, George Westinghouse worked in his early years in his father's shops in Schenectady where they manufactured agricultural machinery. He served as a private in the cavalry for 2 years during the Civil War before being made Acting Third Assistant 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. Later, he invented an instrument which replaced derailed freight cars on the train tracks and started a business to manufacture his invention.
In April of 1869, he obtained a patent for one of his most important inventions, the air brake (patent #re. 5,504). This device enabled trains to be stopped with fail-safe accuracy by the locomotive engineer for the first time and was eventually adopted on the majority of the world's railroads. Previously, train accidents were frequent since brakes had to be applied manually on each car by different brakemen following a signal from the engineer. Seeing potential profit in the invention, Westinghouse organized theWestinghouse Air Brake Company in July of 1869 with himself acting as president. He continued to make many changes in his air brake design and later developed the automatic air brake system and the triple valve.
His industry expanded as he opened companies in Europe and Canada. In the United States, he expanded into the railroad signaling industry by organizing the Union Switch and Signal Company. In this company, devices based on his own inventions and the patents of others were designed to control the increased speed and flexibility which was made possible by the invention of the air brake. Westinghouse also developed an apparatus for the safe transmission of natural gas.
Westinghouse saw the potential for electricity and formed the Westinghouse Electric Company in 1884, later known as the Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company. He obtained exclusive rights to Nikola Tesla's patents for a polyphase system of alternating current in 1888, persuading the inventor to join the Westinghouse Electric Company.
There was opposition from the public to the development of alternating current electricity. Critics, including direct current proponent Thomas Edison, argued that it was dangerous and a hazard to health. This idea was emphasized in the public mind by New York state's adoption of alternating current electrocution for capital crimes. Undeterred, Westinghouse proved the viability of alternating current electricity by having his company design and provide the lighting system for the entire Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.
Westinghouse's company took on another industrial challenge when it was awarded a contract with the Cataract Construction Company in 1893 to build 3 huge generators for harnessing the energy of the Niagara Falls water into electrical energy. 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.