If you've ever lived in Pittsburgh, you've probably heard of George Westinghouse. Pittsburgh is home to the George Westinghouse Bridge, Westinghouse Park and - a memorial to George Westinghouse in Schenley Park. Even if you don't live in Pittsburgh, maybe you've heard of Westinghouse, the company that bears the man's name. The Westinghouse company name adorns products from TVs to light bulbs to nuclear power plants -- even a Brooklyn, N.Y. high school. The company also used to own television and radio stations.
With such a broad reach, the Westinghouse name has become an important, if often unseen, part of the fabric of American life. (To name one example, the ultra-prestigious Intel Science Talent Search was named after him from its inception in 1942 until 1998.) What's really cool about the giant company Westinghouse became, however, is that it all started with the one man who gave the company its name.
George Westinghouse was an inventor and engineer who held more than 300 patents over the course of his life. He both created new technologies and refined existing ones. He helped make Pittsburgh one of America's industrial centers. He even beat out Thomas Edison in the race to build the nation's electrical infrastructure.
Keep reading to learn more about George Westinghouse through his top five inventions.
Gas Shock Absorbers
Next time you doze off while riding in a car, thank George Westinghouse. In 1910, Westinghouse invented a compressed air shock absorber for cars. Before that time, riding in a car could be extremely rough. Most early automotive suspensions used leaf or coil springs. Leaf springs are curved pieces of metal; the car's body sits at the top of the curve, which gives somewhat as the car travels over rough surfaces, relieving the bumps. A coil spring is a coiled piece of metal that compresses over bumps.
A compressed air spring or shock absorber uses pressurized air or other gasses -- not metal -- to absorb bumps. In the shock absorber, pressure builds up. When the car hits a bump, the compressed gas in the shock absorber pushes back against the outside forces, keeping the ride smooth. Today, many luxury cars and off-road vehicles use compressed air suspensions that operate on similar principles to Westinghouse's initial idea. Low riders and cars that have adjustable suspensions use the technology. Who knew that old George was so cool? But the best part of this story is that the compressed air shock absorber came from his early work on railroad safety. Keep reading to find out more.
Train travel is one of the safest ways to get around. That wasn't always the case. While early railroads knew how to get big, heavy locomotives going, stopping them was another matter. That's where George Westinghouse came in.
Westinghouse invented train airbrakes, and modern trains still use his basic design. Before the introduction of airbrakes, locomotive brakes had to be applied manually: Brakemen in each car would manually apply the brakes based on signals given by the engineer. However, the brakemen couldn't always hear the signals; they sometimes applied the brakes incorrectly, leading to accidents.
Airbrakes, on the other hand, could be operated by the engineer. Compressed air in a tank is released through pipes on the underside of the train cars, and the compressed air applies the brake shoes to the train's wheels. The most innovative part of Westinghouse's design was that it was fail-safe: If the system felt a leak in the pipes, the brakes deployed automatically, stopping the train before its speed became a problem.
Westinghouse's airbrakes are still used on trains today. If you use natural gas to heat your home or cook, however, you may have a lot more to thank George for.
Natural Gas Delivery
After his innovations in the railroad industry, Westinghouse settled in Philadelphia, where he had a natural gas well drilled on his property. The well allowed Westinghouse to work on his next great invention: a valve that allowed for the safe distribution of natural gas to homes.
There's a problem with using natural gas for fuel at home: The gas is highly pressurized when it leaves the well -- it has to be in order to move the gas through distribution pipes. But what you don't want is highly pressurized gas coming out of the end of the line into someone's home. It just isn't safe.
To solve the problem, Westinghouse invented a reduction valve that allowed natural gas to come out of its distribution pipes in low-pressure bursts. As a result, natural gas became safe enough for home use -- and Pittsburgh soon had the nation's first wide-spread natural gas delivery system.
But Westinghouse is more widely known for his work with electrical power, which led to his rivalry with Thomas Edison.
No, George Westinghouse didn't invent shape-shifting robots from outer space. However, his work on the natural gas reduction valve convinced him that there had to be a way to distribute alternating current (AC) electricity in wide networks. Alternating current is known as such because the electrical charge can change direction. A direct current (DC) electrical charge doesn't change direction.
Both types of current provide power, but because alternating current changes directions, it's hard to deliver it safely to homes. But DC electricity is also hard to deliver safely and efficiently over long distances. When Westinghouse was working on the problem, DC electricity could only travel about three miles (4.8 km) from its source. Thomas Edison was using DC to power New York City, but Westinghouse saw that there was great potential to generate current far from population centers.
Working with engineer William Stanley and scientist Nikola Tesla, Westinghouse's company developed a transformer that allowed the current to be reduced in power for use in cities, or increased in power for distribution across long distances. Westinghouse's Westinghouse Electric and Edison's General Electric companies went head-to-head trying to prove which company had the better system. However, when Westinghouse lit the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago with AC power, their system began to dominate power distribution. Electricians use the same principles to deliver power today. In fact, New York City's main power company --ironically called Con Edison -- finally shut off DC power service throughout the city in November 2007 [source: Lee].
Hydroelectric Power at Niagara Falls
A system that can transmit electrical power doesn't work if you can't generate enough of it to power a city. Westinghouse was a visionary here as well. Using the work of Nikola Tesla, Westinghouse built the first hydroelectric power plant at Niagara Falls, N.Y. The plant generated power for nearby Buffalo, only 22 miles (35 km) away from the power plant. This was the furthest electricity had ever traveled from its source.
Even after that, Westinghouse didn't stop innovating -- and neither did his company. The Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company created products ranging from the electric locomotive to the electric kitchen stove. Westinghouse also owned the first commercial radio station and the first commercial radio broadcast. By the 1920s, the company was experimenting with television technology while also building massive motors to power industrial sites and maritime motors for ships.
These top five George Westinghouse inventions are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the contributions to modern American life that he and his companies made.
Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla both had amazing inventions. Find out more about this controversial duo with our HowStuffWorks quiz.
- Invention Dimension. "Inventor of the Week: George Westinghouse." Lemelson-MIT Program. October 1998. (Accessed December 27, 2010)http://web.mit.edu/invent/iow/westinghouse.html
- Lee, Jennifer 8. "Off Goes the Power Current Started by Thomas Edison." NYTimes.com. City Room, November 14, 2007. (Accessed Jan. 7, 2011)http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/11/14/off-goes-the-power-current-started-by-thomas-edison/
- Westinghouse Nuclear. "George Westinghouse." (Accessed December 27, 2010) http://www.westinghousenuclear.com/Our_Company/history/george_westinghouse.shtm