Let's Learn From the Past: George Westinghouse

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Anyone who has turned on a light, cooked on a stove or had a Saturday afternoon off from work can thank Pittsburgher George Westinghouse.

His contributions more than 100 years ago still impact people's day-to-day lives.

Westinghouse was born Oct. 6, 1846, in Central Bridge, N.Y. When he was 16, he enlisted in the Union Army and later became an officer in the Union Navy during the Civil War.

After the war, Westinghouse began studying at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., but became disinterested and dropped out. He went to work for his father, who owned an agricultural equipment manufacturing company. George was 19 when he obtained his first patent for a rotary steam engine.

Arriving in Pittsburgh in 1869, Westinghouse lived in a boarding house for two years before settling in Homewood with his wife, Marguerite.

During this time, he founded the Westinghouse Air Brake Co. to manufacture the air brake he had invented, which improved railroad safety by allowing train cars to stop easily.

After working six-day weeks at his father's company, he understood the value of giving employees time to pursue personal interests. Beginning in 1881, he became the first industrialist to give employees a half-day off on Saturdays.

In 1884, Westinghouse drilled a gas well in his backyard so that he could experiment with the fuel. Within two years, he had figured out how to safely deliver natural gas. He founded the first commercial gas company in Pittsburgh and later held more than 30 patents related to natural gas distribution.

After working independently on alternating current electricity for four years, Westinghouse partnered with fellow inventor Nikola Tesla in 1885. Before then, electricity was available in only a few U.S. cities because the direct current method could not transmit electricity for long distances.

Westinghouse and Tesla's work enabled alternating current to reach Buffalo, N.Y., from Niagara Falls in 1896. The 20 mile distance was more than the half mile direct current was able to travel. Westinghouse's alternating current electricity was soon used to power U.S. cities.

By the time Westinghouse died in 1914, he had established more than 60 companies, which controlled more than 15,000 patents and employed more than 50,000 workers worldwide.

Visitors to the Heinz History Center will enjoy interacting with a "virtual" George Westinghouse who can answer more than 200 questions as part of the "Pittsburgh: A Tradition of Innovation" exhibition. Information: www.heinzhistorycenter.org.

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