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Westinghouse Essay, Research Paper

Most people know the name Westinghouse as the name of an appliance, but where did the name come from? Many people may not know that George Westinghouse was not only an inventor, but a visionary. George Westinghouse’s many inventions fed the Industrial Revolution that swept through America in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The Industrial Revolution brought many changes to the United States. Even though America was progressing, many ill effects were brought on by this expansion. Westinghouse was one of the Industrialist that actually cared about the many problems he saw in urban America. Westinghouse, at the age of forty-two, could no longer ignore “the evils of social upheaval created by too rapid industrial development”(Levine, 2). George Westinghouse wanted something done, but it looked as if he was the only one that would do it. George Westinghouse had influenced many areas of his era and ours. His many inventions, his good-willed policy toward his workers and his business practices have affected all of us; but nothing will compare to the influences that he left on our country’s upper-class – the concept that they had a responsibility toward the society that had made them who they were.

George Westinghouse was born eight of ten children into a middle class family on October 6, 1846. Westinghouse’s father ran a small machine shop in Schendectady, NY, that manufactured mostly farm implements; as a result, Westinghouse was introduced to the world of machines at a very early age. Due to curiosities he found during the Civil War, in which he served in both the Northern Army and the Navy, Westinghouse invented a rotary steam engine. At age nineteen, this was his first patented invention; however, the design proved to be impractical. Despite his troubles, Westinghouse went on to invent a device for placing derailed railroad cars back on their tracks.

The next year, Westinghouse was riding on a train that was suddenly brought to a stop to avoid a wrecked train on the tracks ahead. The brakes that were in use on trains around the world at this time were operated manually. Westinghouse knew that there must be a safer and quicker way to stop a train. After observing rock drills, that used compressed air to drill tunnels through mountains, Westinghouse wondered if the use of compressed air could be applied to brakes. This led to one of Westinghouse’s most famous and most influential inventions ever. Westinghouse did not know it, but he was on his way to changing the course of the nation. However, at age twenty two, his new air brake and he got little attention. “If I understand you, young man, you propose to stop a railroad train with wind. I have no time to listen to such nonsense,” said Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, one of the most powerful railroad owners of the time (Compton’s,4).

Finally, on a small railroad outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Westinghouse was able to try out his new air brake. On the trial run, the train came to a crossing where a farmer’s wagon had broken down. Upon seeing this, the locomotive’s engineer applied the new braking system. Too everyone’s surprise, the train was jolted to a halt; furthermore, the train was stopped yards in front of the farmer’s wagon. Even though almost everyone did fall out of their seat, this was the beginning of Westinghouse’s influence on the world. Eventually, the Railroad Safety Act of 1893 would “make air brakes compulsory on all U.S. trains”(Britannica, 6). At this point, Westinghouse established the Westinghouse Air Brake Company. By 1869, already, Westinghouse’s success was almost guaranteed.

George Westinghouse’s next frontier was railroad signaling. With the ever increasing use and expansion of railroads, signaling became a major problem. He created a signaling system using compressed air and electricity; thus, the Union Switch and Signal Company was founded in 1882. Indeed, Westinghouse helped the railroads greatly. With his railroad inventions, railroads became safer; accordingly, leading to the instillation of railroad passengers with confidence. He also created a more profitable operation for the railroads. The bigger profits that were made by the railroad barons, the more they invested and the faster the Industrial Revolution took place.

In this fast growing economy, Westinghouse, who was now financially stable, started to tinker with electricity and natural gas. With a well drilled in his yard, Westinghouse developed and marketed a system for the control and distribution of natural gas in Pittsburgh. Today’s natural gas industry “owes its existence to Mr. Westinghouse”(Shumaker, 4). Using the knowledge gained from his work in natural gas, Westinghouse developed a theory for the distribution of electricity. He imported both a motor and its inventor, Nikola Tesla, from Europe. With the help of Tesla and three American engineers, Westinghouse developed a new electrical transformer that allowed electricity to be carried over long distances; however, Westinghouse’s design used alternating current, while such people as Thomas Edison used and were promoting direct current electricity. This started the “Battle of the Currents”, as it was called (Corporate, 1).

The advocates and financiers, led by Edison, of the DC system immediately tried to discredit Westinghouse’s use of the AC system as soon as his Alternating Current components were made available on the market. These people charged that AC power was a menace to society. As if they did not do enough already to deface Westinghouse, they successfully had the state of New York install a Westinghouse AC generator as the official means of executing death sentences. These charges were untrue; therefore, they were insufficient in the suppressment of the use of AC power. AC power was given credibility when Westinghouse won the contract to light the Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893. It was said to be a “dazzling spectacle of a quarter of a million lights that stole the show”. Reflecting the “Battle of the currents”, Nikola Tesla later wrote, “George Westinghouse was, in my opinion, the only man on this globe who could take my alternating-current system under the circumstances then existing and win the battle against prejudice and money power. He was one of the world’s true noblemen, of whom America may well be proud and to whom humanity owes an immense debt of gratitude” (Corporate, 1) .

On January 8, 1886, with a stroke of the Governor of Pennsylvania’s pen, the Westinghouse Electric Company was granted a charter. This company, which would turn out to be the most important of George Westinghouse’s many companies, had two-hundred employees and was located in a rented building in Pittsburgh’s Garrison Alley Section. By this point in his life, Westinghouse had founded a few other companies. His air brake company had been expanded to France, England and Germany. This idea of a company going world-wide was relatively new. This led a surge of American companies to expand beyond the United States; American influence was being spread around the world. Westinghouse had also founded a machine shop in Pittsburgh in 1881.

Westinghouse was very different from most of the other American Industrialist. From the start, Westinghouse was not motivated by money or power. He was motivated by knowing that his inventions and other work would be used to help mankind. Within two years after the Westinghouse Electric Company was founded, the company had grown from the original two-hundred employees to more than three thousand employees by 1888. By 1890, the Westinghouse Electric Company sales totaled four million dollars; Westinghouse had also installed more than three-hundred electrical generators including Niagara Falls, by this time. Westinghouse’s business practices were very different than the business practices of they day. Westinghouse clearly was not a businessman, yet because of his dreams, he successfully ran his businesses in a way that baffled many businessmen.

From the start, Westinghouse was concerned with the welfare of his employees. His employees were his prime consideration in any business decision. Westinghouse’s workers had a six day, fifty-five hour work week. This work week included five ten hour days, Monday through Friday, and a five hour day on Saturday. It seemed strange to other employers of the time to give employees a half-day on Saturday, but this was part of Westinghouse’s philosophy. Another benefit of working for Westinghouse was the pension plan. One of the earliest known, Westinghouse provided a pension for each of his workers. The employees of Westinghouse’s businesses also received medical coverage. If an employee fell sick or was injured, he and his family would receive money from the compensation fund to live, and the finest medical services available would be given to the worker. A Veteran Employees Association was formed. Any employee with twenty years or more of service could join. This evolved into the formation of a Grievance Committee made up of three shop men and three management personnel. The Grievance Committee would form to resolve such issues as the following: working conditions, working methods, and limits of the workers. Westinghouse’s Grievance Committee set the path for labor reform in America. Westinghouse revolutionized the way the American employee worked; hence, Westinghouse was received as the best boss in Pittsburgh. Consequently, he won the resentment of the other employers in Pittsburgh and eventually the country.

Westinghouse became famous to every citizen by a means different than his inventions. Westinghouse actually created his own town. Westinghouse became perplexed with the problems that he saw in Pittsburgh; The town had grew from a small city to a booming industrial mecca-center filled with smoky factories and pollution filled avenues. He watched the people work long hours, many were immigrants and others were Native Americans in search of a decent living; furthermore, they came home at night to horrible run down homes where sickly children played in piles of rubbish and rarely attended school. Crime, disease and alcoholism were becoming the image of the industrial world. Westinghouse knew that it could be better than this. He knew that all this progress was not for the working class to become illiterate, diseased and delinquent and for the rich to become isolated and forgetful of what they see. George Westinghouse wondered why nobody did anything about it. Politicians would not address it, the upper class would not mention it, and the workers were too busy in their rat race to care. Westinghouse decided he must take action.

Westinghouse began reading up on the problem. He read of experiments in Denmark and Sweden where model communities where being made by business and government officials. Westinghouse knew what he would have to do, but it was a very risky move; nevertheless, George had learned not to be frightened off by bold ideas. George Westinghouse contacted a leading architectural firm and told them “I want you to design a factory and surround it with a town,”(Levine, 2). He visioned a town of state-of-the-art factories, a research laboratory, good schools, community centers, a hospital and inexpensive houses for the employees. Running water and electricity would be standard. In 1890, the Westinghouse Air Brake Company was completely moved to the new site, called Wilmerding, Pennsylvania. The workshops had the “most modern lighting, heating, ventilation and safety facilities,”(Levine, 2). Each house in the town had a complete indoor bathroom, electric lighting, and natural gas outlets for cooking and heating. The houses had a lawn with grass, shrubbery, and trees. The houses were rented to the workers with an option to buy. For the children, there were the following: schools that were brightly decorated to attract them to stay, a community center with gymnasiums, a library and meeting rooms. Westinghouse had really out done himself this time thought the whole country; nevertheless, George Westinghouse felt that he had accomplished his greatest achievement, and indeed he had.

Westinghouse’s model community sent a silent shock-wave to the upper class society of America. Westinghouse was telling these people that they had a responsibility to society. The age of a two class society was over. The American worker now had rights and had power. It took a decade or two, but Westinghouse’s vision of America as an Industrial power eventually took shape with the help of the labor movement. Unfortunately, Westinghouse lost control of most of his companies in the financial panic of 1907; this was mostly due to the negative attitude toward him by other employers, his financial backers and his stockholders. Westinghouse died on March 12, 1914; it was a sad day at the Westinghouse companies. A man who cared, a man who listened, a great man was gone forever. George Westinghouse and his wife Marguerite, to whom he credits his success, are buried in Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington, D.C. Overall, millions, if not billions of people have benefited from his companies, inventions, and his visions. Would you have safe, odorless, and efficient lights in your house; would you see an illuminated advertisement on the highway; or would you have a paid vacation if it was not for George Westinghouse? He invented all those things. How about your pension? The hundred largest pensions in the U.S. “have assets exceeding two trillion dollars,”(Muhlenkamp, 3). That is something George Westinghouse would have enjoyed to see.

Works Cited

Corporate History. Westinghouse Electric Corporation. (Online)


25 February. 1997.3.

Levine, I. E. Inventative Wizard – George Westinghouse.

New York, Julian Messner, Inc., 1962, pp. 132-135.

Muhlenkamp, Ronald H. “The U.S. Triumph of Workers’ Capitalism.”

Investor’s Business Daily. (Online)

December 12, 1996

Shumaker, Richard. George Westinghouse – Inventive Mind. (Online) http://www.lm.com/ rs7717/george.html

25 February. 1997.

Westinghouse, George. Compton’s Living Encyclopedia. (Online)

America Online. 2 March. 1997.

Westinghouse, George. Encyclopedia Britannica.

1996, vol. 12, pp 605-606.

“Westinghouse Works Timeline.” Library of Congress. (Online)


25 February. 1997.

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