This Month in NYS History – Industrialist George Westinghouse, Jr. Born in Central Bridge – October 6, 1846
As a boy of 15, Westinghouse enlisted and served in the Civil War. After rising to the rank of corporal in the Army, he then joined the Navy, serving as an engineer on a Navy vessel until the end of the war. Upon his discharge in 1865, he returned to his Schoharie County home in upstate New York and enrolled at Union College in Schenectady. He quickly lost interest in college, however, and dropped out during freshman year.
Immersing himself completely in industrial invention, Westinghouse received his first patent shortly after the end of the Civil War, for a new type of steam engine. Soon after he invented a mechanism that would assist returning derailed freight cars to their tracks, and the air-braking system for trains that remains in use to this day. However, it was his later triumphs in electrical engineering that made Westinghouse a legend.
One of the greatest dreams of Westinghouse’s lifetime was the creation of an electrical grid to power America’s growing industrial and urban landscape. The problem was, few could agree on how to do it. Westinghouse and Thomas Edison clashed over how best to implement the first electricity systems, with Edison favoring a direct current (DC) system and his Edison Electric Co. standing ready to supply the equipment needed to build it.
But DC electricity requires that power stations be built every mile or two to carry it over long distances, an immense and costly endeavor. AC, which Westinghouse proposed using, can be carried over far longer distances with no intermediate stations as long as the voltage can be raised or lowered as needed. Westinghouse saw that this was a far more economical way to proceed, and his advocacy for AC current eventually triumphed over Edison. Westinghouse went on to invent the power transmission and distribution equipment necessary to make the dream of cheap, reliable AC power a reality.
During his life, Westinghouse received more than 360 patents for his inventions and founded 60 companies. Westinghouse prospered until 1907, when a financial downturn resulted in his losing control of his businesses. His health failed soon after, and he died in March 1914 in New York City.