Westinghouse Memorial

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George Westinghouse was born on October 6, 1846, in Central Bridge, New York. At age 15 he ran away to join the Union army, but his parents made him come home. When he turned 16, he convinced them to let him serve, and he spent one year in the Union army and one year in the Union navy. Returning home, he dropped out of college after a few months and thus began his illustrious career as inventor extraordinaire, obtaining 361 patents. He died on March 12, 1914, in New York City, at age 67. As a Civil War veteran, he and is wife are buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

George Westinghouse revolutionized the transportation industry with his invention of the railroad air brake. Westinghouse alternating current electricity made the production and transmission of electricity over vast areas possible and the system used to electrify the country and the world.

He was beloved by the workforce that stretched from East Pittsburgh around the world.
The working population held Westinghouse in high esteem because he believed an employer could make huge profits while treating his employees in a humane fashion.

He founded Westinghouse Air Brake Company (WABCO, now Wabtec Corporation) in 1869 at age 23, the Union Switch & Signal  (now Ansaldo-STS) in 1881, the Philadelphia Company in 1884 (see below), the Westinghouse Electric Company in 1886 and subsequently over 50 additional companies. 

His concern for living conditions, as well as the educational and cultural growth of employees and their families, was paramount. In 1869, WABCO became the first employer to implement nine-hour days, 55-hour work weeks, and half-holidays on Saturdays. In the early 1900s, the Westinghouse Company built houses on a tract of land that it had purchased and then sold those homes to its workers at a very inexpensive price. The company also offered educational and cultural activities, usually run through the local YMCA, to obtain better workers.

For more information see: George Westinghouse: Gentle Giant by Quentin R. Skrabec Jr., Algora Publishing 2006, George Westinghouse: The Mystery by William S. Dietrich III, The Pittsburgh Quarterly Spring/Summer 2006 and  New World Encyclopedia.

George Westinghouse: The Man by Paul Cravath

Interesting Historical Events

Trains – Before the Air Brake
Alternating Current Changed the World
Pioneering Natural Gas Innovations
Bertha Lamme – America’s First Woman Electrical Engineer
Army of the Republic

Trains – Before the Air Brake
For people riding today’s smooth, fast trains, the methods of stopping a train before George Westinghouse invented the air brake is almost unimaginable, even comical.

Ordinarily the “down brakes” whistle was sounded a mile before the train’s scheduled stop. Then the engineer shut off the power and let the locomotive coast whole the brakemen (one for every car) brought the train to a stop. If they were skillful enough and if their teamwork was perfect, they might succeed in making a smooth stop at the right place, but chances were against it.

Each brakeman had to turn a horizontal hand-wheel that tightened a chain under his car and gradually forced heavy brake shoes against the wheels. Invariably, some brakemen would slow their cars faster than others, with the result that a stop was seldom made without considerable bumping and jousting. And at the last moment, the engineer had to lend a hand. If he thought the train would stop short of its destination, he opened the throttle and drove it the necessary distance. If he thought the train might overshoot its mark, he “plugged” the engine, throwing it into reverse.

Alternating Current Changed the World
Despite being an outstanding inventor himself, George Westinghouse had the ability to see the potential in inventions of others, and how to make them better. There were many, including Thomas Edison, who strongly opposed alternating current, claiming it was dangerous and unreliable. Westinghouse saw the 1893 Columbian Exposition at Chicago as an opportunity to change public opinion. In May 1892, he bid $5.25 per lamp to light the fairgrounds. The competition, using the Edison direct current technology, bid between $13.98 and $18.51 per lamp, and they held the patent for the only practical glass bulb incandescent lamp.

However, Westinghouse owned the rights to a patent for a two-piece bulb invented in 1880, and with this as a starting point, he transformed this bulb into the “stopper lamp” with a ground glass stopper that fit into the base of a glass globe like a cork. Producing the new bulb also required inventing a more efficient vacuum pump and a new technique for removing the last traces of air from the bulb, as well as setting up a glass factory.

When the Exposition opened on May 1, 1893, the Westinghouse lighting plant was one of the very few exhibits that was complete and ready for operation. In less than a year, Westinghouse had built a quarter of a million stopper lamps to light the fair as well as twelve 75-ton polyphase generators , the largest of their kind built in this country up to that time, to produce the electrical energy for the lights and exhibit.

Pioneering Natural Gas Innovations
Natural gas is big news in Western Pennsylvania, as it was in the 1880’s. For George Westinghouse, the potential for alternating current was still to be discovered, but often overlooked is his involvement in development and transmission of natural gas.

Westinghouse's venture with natural gas began in 1883 at his home “Solitude” in the Point Breeze section of Pittsburgh. It was known that natural gas was abundant in and around Pittsburgh. Unlike today, natural gas was considered to be dangerous: it leaked out of every crevice or imperfection, and occasionally caused violent explosions. The challenge attracted Westinghouse's attention, and soon his mind was contemplating how to control such valuable fuel, as he had controlled compressed air in inventing the air brake.

Drillers tapped a small vein of gas in Westinghouse’s back yard. At almost a third of a mile, on May 29, 1884, they found much more than expected. At three o'clock in the morning Westinghouse was startled from sleep by a thunderous crash and a terrifying roar. Jetting from the well was a vast geyser of filth-mud, gravel, sand, water. The drilling machinery was nowhere to be seen. The lawn and paths were littered with debris, and the spewing hole hissed and roared with the infernal violence of a volcano.

As the day wore on, the geyser of filth subsided, but a stream of pure gas continued with hurricane velocity from the well. There was little peace in the “Solitude” neighborhood (right) for the next week, until Westinghouse devised a stopcock and brought the roaring jet under control. But the fun was not over. Constructing a sixty-foot pipe at the mouth of the well, Westinghouse treated his neighbors to further frightening displays by shooting a fountain of fire one hundred feet into the night sky.

By the beginning of the summer, he obtained his first major patent for a "System for Conveying and Utilizing Gas Under Pressure." By the end of the summer, he organized the Philadelphia Company. One after another, Westinghouse poured forth twenty-eight new inventions in 1884 and 1885. They touched and transformed every aspect of the system. He devised better methods of digging gas wells, a meter for measuring the amount of gas used, methods of preventing and detecting leaks, a regulator for controlling the amount of air combining with gas in a steam furnace, and importantly, a group of ingenious inventions that eliminated a serious danger in the use of natural gas - an automatic control which shut off the main supply of gas whenever the pressure fell below the point at which gas flames would die. No gas could flow through the jets when the pressure returned, until all the cocks in the building were closed. Then the supply could be renewed by pressing a button on the regulator.

Another very noteworthy contribution was his invention of a system for conveying gas over long distances. The pressure of gas at the well is much greater than the pressure required by the consumer. Westinghouse utilized this very high pressure to drive the gas speedily through a comparatively narrow pipe for four or five miles. Then, by widening the pipe at intervals, he reduced the pressure until it was just strong enough for use when it reached the consumer. It was this same basic idea for distribution-high pressure at the source and reduced pressure at the point of use-that lay behind Westinghouse's plan for supplying electric power over long distances.

The inexpensive natural gas fuel supplied by the Philadelphia Company drew many industries to Pittsburgh, including large iron and steel concerns which helped develop Pittsburgh into one of the great industrial centers of the world. About 1889, the Philadelphia Company acquired the Equitable Gas Company. Equitable Gas became the sole owner of all natural gas properties held by the Philadelphia Company in Pennsylvania in 1947.

Westinghouse bequeathed the Point Breeze mansion to his son, who in turn sold the property to the Engineers Society of Western Pennsylvania. The house was razed and Westinghouse Park was developed. In 2016, a Pennsylvania Historical Marker commemorating the events at the site was added. It reads as follows:


In 1884, George Westinghouse drilled a natural gas well here on his estate, Solitude, now Westinghouse Park. When gas was struck, an uncontrolled geyser erupted for a week. Within two years, Westinghouse obtained over 30 patents for the distribution and safe use of natural gas for industrial and residential customers. His ingenuity and business acumen were instrumental in the development of natural gas as a significant new energy source.


Bertha Lamme – America’s First Woman Electrical Engineer
by Ed Reis, Westinghouse Historian, Senator John Heinz History Center

On a cold December day in 1893, a very pretty and petite young woman enters the engineering department at the Westinghouse Electric Company for her first day of employment. She had been hired as an electrical engineer at the Garrison Alley Works of the Westinghouse Electric Company in Downtown Pittsburgh at a time when companies did not hire women to be engineers.

Her name was Bertha Lamme and she had graduated from Ohio State University with the degree of mechanical engineering (in Electrical Engineering) in May of that year. Her older brother, Benjamin, also was an engineer at Westinghouse and had given her some Westinghouse street railway data which she used in her Ohio State thesis. The thesis was titled, An Analysis of Tests of a Westinghouse Railway Generator.

Apparently Westinghouse superintendent, Albert Schmid, saw her thesis and was impressed. Speculation is she also met him when visiting her brother here in Pittsburgh and he realized she was really quite talented. So, Albert Schmid hired her to be an electrical engineer. This surprised the other Westinghouse engineers, including her brother Benjamin. In fact, it even surprised Bertha Lamme, for she never expected to be hired as an engineer.

This talented young woman took up the task of performing the complicated calculations and other engineering work required for the pioneering accomplishments of Westinghouse during this dynamic period of time when the electrification of the country and the world was taking place using Westinghouse alternating current electricity.

Bertha married fellow engineer Russell Feicht in 1905 and resigned her employment with Westinghouse, which was the practice of the time. Thus her 12-year engineering career came to a close - but not before she made her mark. In the future she would be known as America’s First Woman Electrical Engineer.

Army of the Republic
by Ed Reis, Westinghouse Historian, Senator John Heinz History Center

George Westinghouse was a very patriotic American. During the Civil War he first served as a private in the New York Volunteer Calvary. After passing a special mechanical examination, he transferred and became an officer in the Union Navy. He served on the USS Muscouta and the USS Stars & Stripes. He was an Assistant Third Engineer and was responsible for maintaining the engines on these two steam- powered gunboats that were used to blockade the southern ports during the war.

After the war ended in 1865, the veterans from the North would get together for an encampment every year. Pittsburg was the host city in 1894 for the 28th Annual Encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), as they were known.

Upon hearing this, George Westinghouse approached the committee from the City of Pittsburg and proposed that he wanted to host a great dinner for the GAR  members at a new factory building that had just been completed at his new Westinghouse factory complex in East Pittsburg. He also proposed to have the new factory building converted into a great temporary dining hall that would have a nicely done stage with a carpeted stairway. The dinning area was also to be carpeted and would have tables with linen table clothes, linen napkins, etc.

He wanted the GAR members to be brought out from Pittsburg to the East Pittsburg Westinghouse factory building by train for the dinner and returned to downtown Pittsburg later that evening. He also told the committee members that he was willing to pay for all the bills!

The dining hall was constructed with the stage backdrop having the words “Welcome - 1861 GAR 1865” lit up using incandescent lamps. So, a great dinner was held one night during Grand Army Week with the Civil War GAR veterans saying that the magnificent Westinghouse dinner was the highlight of the week.

Now, one may ask, “How many Civil War veterans attended the dinner?” Well, there is a letter in the Westinghouse Collection at the Heinz History Center that states that 6,500 Civil War veterans attended this great dinner hosted by a fellow GAR member, George Westinghouse!

The Heinz History Center, a few miles away near downtown Pittsburgh, has an outstanding collection of Westinghouse Artifacts & Archival Materials.