Encyclopedia > George Westinghouse

  Article Content

George Westinghouse

The name of Westinghouse is as or more familiar as that of Edison, but only as a trademark and company name. Thomas Alva Edison remains a famous public figure but his contemporary George Westinghouse is now largely anonymous. This is somewhat strange, since the accomplishments of both men were comparable in breadth and importance.

George Westinghouse was born in Central Bridge, New York, on October 6 1846. In the mid-1850s, his father, George Westinghouse Senior, established a factory in Schenectady, New York, where young George learned about mechanics, manufacturing, management, and business. After the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861, the 15-year-old George ran away with two of his brothers to fight for the Union cause. One of the brothers was killed in action. George transferred to the Union Navy to become a ship's engineer.

George Westinghouse returned to Schenectady after the end of the war in 1865, where he studied engineering at Union College[?] while he dreamed up new inventions, mostly related to the railroads. At the time, the safety record of the railroads was appalling, and he became interesting in designing improvements that would make trains safer and more efficient to operate.

His first major invention was a device to mount railroad cars back on tracks after they had been derailed. After watching a collision between two trains, he then invented an improved braking system that could be operated by the locomotive engineer, without the delay of going through a brakeman.

Such systems had been invented before, based on steam or chains, but had not proven effective. Westinghouse invented a new system that used compressed air. This original Westinghouse braking system was not "fail-safe", but he refined the design until it was, and also worked towards standardization of air brake systems to ensure interoperability between different train lines. In 1893, the US Railroad Safety Appliance Act[?] made air brakes mandatory on all trains in the US, and air brakes remain standard on railroads, trucks, and buses even today.

In 1868, Westinghouse went to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where the next year he set up the Westinghouse Air Brake Company[?]. His air-brake system established his reputation and fortunes. He moved on develop a new automatic signal and switching system using electricity and compressed air, as well as improved car couplers.

He then began to expand the scope of his activities. Oil was becoming increasingly important for industrial purposes. Oil drilling[?] tended to release natural gas, which was simply wasted because there was no way to deal with it. Westinghouse developed improved drilling equipment that could handle natural gas, as well as the elements of piping systems needed to distribute the gas.

The invention of the telephone by Alexander Graham Bell in 1877 led Westinghouse into a new domain. At first, all telephone calls were routed through a central switchboard, but this led to a tangle of wiring. In 1879, Westinghouse introduced automated substations that could route calls to a central exchange, greatly reducing the number of connections. Such a "hierarchical" switching system would eventually be expanded into the modern switched telephone network.

In 1875, Thomas Edison had been a virtual unknown. He had achieved some success with a "multiplex telegraph" system that allowed multiple telegraph signals to be sent over a single wire, but had not yet obtained the recognition he wanted. He was working on a telephone system but was upstaged by Bell. Edison bounced back quickly from the setback to invent the phonograph, which was a public sensation nobody had dreamed possible and made him famous.

Edison's next step, in 1878, was to invent an improved incandescent light bulb, and more the point to consider the need for an electrical distribution system to provide power for light bulbs. On September 4 1882, Edison switched on the world's first electrical power distribution system, providing 110 volts direct current (DC) to 59 customers in lower Manhattan, around his Pearl Street[?] laboratory.

Westinghouse's interests in gas distribution and telephone switching logically led to become interested in electrical power distribution. He investigated Edison's scheme, but decided that it was too inefficient to be scaled up to a large size. Edison's power network was based on low-voltage DC, which meant large currents and serious power losses. Several European inventors were working on "alternating current (AC)" power distribution. An AC power system allowed voltages to be "stepped up" by a transformer for distribution, reducing power losses, and then "stepped down" by a transformer for use.

A power transformer developed by Lucien Gaulard[?] of France and John Gibbs[?] of England was demonstrated in London in 1881, and attracted the interest of Westinghouse. Transformers were nothing new, but the Gaulard-Gibbs design was one of the first that could handle large amounts of power and promised to be easy to manufacture. In 1885, Westinghouse imported a number of Gaulard-Gibbs transformers and a Siemens AC generator to begin experimenting with AC networks in Pittsburgh.

Assisted by William Stanley[?], Westinghouse worked to refine the transformer design and build a practical AC power network. In 1886, Westinghouse and Stanley installed the first multiple-voltage AC power system in Great Barrington, Massachusetts[?]. The network was driven by a hydropower generator that produced 500 volts AC. The voltage was stepped up to 3,000 volts for transmission, and then stepped back down to 100 volts to power electric lights. That same year, he formed the "Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company", which was renamed the "Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company" in 1889.

Thirty more AC lighting systems were installed within a year, but the scheme was limited by the lack of an effective metering system and an AC electric motor. In 1888, Westinghouse and his engineer Oliver Shallenger[?] developed a power meter, which they designed to look as much like a gas meter as possible. The same basic meter technology is still used today.

An AC motor was a more difficult task, but fortunately a design was already available, at least in principle. The brilliant Serbian inventor Nikola Tesla had already dreamed up the basic principles of a polyphase electric motor. As luck would have it, he had come to the United States while in the employ of the Edison company. Tesla and Edison didn't get along well, one reason being that Tesla was interested in AC systems, and quickly parted company.

Westinghouse got in touch with Tesla, and obtained patent rights to Tesla's AC motor. Tesla hadn't actually built a working motor at that time, but Westinghouse hired him as a consultant for a year and helped turn his polyphase AC motor into a reality. The work led to the standard modern US power-distribution scheme: three-phase AC at 60 cycles per second. 60 cycles was chosen as a rate high enough to minimize light flickering, but low enough to reduce reactive losses.

Westinghouse's promotion of AC power distribution led him into a bitter confrontation with Edison and his DC power system. The feud became known as "the battle of the currents." Edison claimed that high voltage systems were inherently dangerous; Westinghouse replied that the risks could be managed and were outweighed by the benefits. Edison tried to have legislation enacted in several states to limit power transmission voltages to 800 volts, but failed.

The battle went to an absurd, and some would say tragic, level, when in 1887 a board appointed by the state of New York consulted Edison on the best way to execute condemned prisoners. At first, Edison wanted nothing to do with the matter, declaring his opposition to capital punishment.

However, Westinghouse AC networks were clearly winning the battle of the currents, and the ultra-competitive Edison saw a last opportunity to defeat his rival. Edison hired an outside engineer named Harold Brown[?], who could pretend to be impartial, to perform public demonstrations in which animals were electrocuted by AC power. Edison then told the state board that AC was so deadly that it would kill instantly, making it the ideal method of execution. His prestige was so great that his recommendation was adopted.

Harold Brown then sold gear for performing electric executions to the state for $8,000. In August 1890, a convict named William Kammler[?] became the first person to be executed by electrocution. The execution was messy and protracted, and Westinghouse protested that they could have done better with an axe. Unfortunately, the electric chair became a common form of execution for decades, even though it had proven from the first to be an unsatisfactory way to do the job. However, Edison failed in his attempts to have the procedure named "Westinghousing".

Edison also failed to discredit AC power, whose advantages did in fact well outweigh its hazards. Even General Electric, formed with Edison's backing in Schenectady in 1892, decided to begin production of AC equipment.

In 1893, in a significant coup, the Westinghouse company was awarded the contract to set up an AC network to power the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, giving the company and the technology widespread positive publicity. Westinghouse also received a contract to set up the first long-range power network, with AC generators at Niagara Falls producing electricity for distribution in Buffalo, New York, 40 kilometers (25 miles) away.

With AC networks expanding, Westinghouse turned his attention to electrical power production. At the outset, the available generating sources were hydroturbines where falling water was available, and reciprocating steam engines where it was not. Westinghouse felt that reciprocating steam engines were clumsy and inefficient, and wanted to develop some class of "rotating" engine that would be more elegant and efficient.

In fact, one of his first inventions had been a rotary steam engine, but it had proven impractical. However, an English engineer named Charles Parsons[?] began to experiment with steam turbines in 1884, beginning with a ten-horsepower unit. Westinghouse bought rights to the Parsons turbine in 1885, and began work towards improving the Parsons technology and scaling it up.

Skeptics questioned that the steam turbine would ever be a reliable large-scale power source, but in 1898 Westinghouse demonstrated a 300 kilowatt unit, replacing reciprocating engines in his air-brake factory. The next year he installed a 1.5 megawatt, 1,200 RPM unit for the Hartford Electric Light Company[?].

Westinghouse then turned his attention to using such large steam turbines to drive big ships. The problem was that such large turbines were most efficient at about 3,000 RPM, while an efficient propeller operated at about 100 RPM. That meant reduction gearing, but building a reduction gear system that could operate at such high RPM and at thousands of horsepower was tricky. Even a slight misalignment would shake the power train to pieces. Westinghouse and his engineers were able to devise an automatic alignment system that made turbine power practical for large vessels.

Westinghouse remained productive and inventive through almost all his life. Like Edison, he had a practical and experimental streak. At one time, Westinghouse began to work on heat pumps that could provide heating and cooling, and even believed that he might be able to extract enough power in the process for the system to run itself.

Any modern engineer would clearly see that Westinghouse was after a perpetual motion machine, and the British physicist Lord Kelvin, one of Westinghouse's correspondents, told him that he would be violating the laws of thermodynamics. Westinghouse replied that might be the case, but it made no difference. If he couldn't built a perpetual-motion machine, he would still have a heat pump system that he could patent and sell.

With the introduction of the automobile after the turn of the century, Westinghouse went back to earlier inventions and came up with a compressed-air shock absorber scheme to allow automobiles to deal with the wretched roads of the time.

Westinghouse remained a captain of American industry until 1907, when a financial panic led to his resignation from control of the Westinghouse company. By 1911, he was no longer active in business, and his health was in decline.

George Westinghouse died on March 12 1914, in New York City, at age 67. As a Civil War veteran, he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery, along with his wife Marguerite. He was mourned. Although a shrewd and determined businessman, Westinghouse was a conscientious employer and wanted to make fair deals with his business associates. In 1930, a memorial to Westinghouse, funded by his employees, was placed in Schenley Park in Pittsburgh.

The original version of this article was by greg_goebel (gvgoebel@yahoo.com) / public domain (http://www.vectorsite.net/f2001m07). This article is a composite work licensed under the GFDL.

All Wikipedia text is available under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License

  Search Encyclopedia

Search over one million articles, find something about almost anything!
  Featured Article

... claim millions of lives, as known or suspected political opponents and military officers were executed or exiled to Siberia during the Great Purges of the ...