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Fascinating facts about George Westinghouse inventor of the air brake in 1869.

George Westinghouse
The first air brake invented by George Westinghouse in 1869 revolutionized the railroad industry, making braking a safer venture and thus permitting trains to travel at higher speeds. Westinghouse made many alterations to improve his invention leading to various forms of the automatic brake. By 1905, over 2,000,000 freight, passenger, mail, baggage and express cars and 89,000 locomotives were equipped with the Westinghouse Quick-Action Automatic Brake
Inventor: George Westinghouse Jr.
George Westinghouse photo courtesy George Westinghouse Museum
Criteria: First to invent. First to patent. Entrepreneur.
Birth: October 6, 1846 in Central Bridge, New York
Death: March 12, 1914 in New York
Nationality: American
Invention: air brake system in 1869
Air brake photo courtesy Railway Technology
Function: noun / A brake operated by compressed air.
Definition: Compressed air pushes on a piston in a cylinder. The piston is connected to a brake shoe which can rub on the train wheel, creating friction and stopping the train. 
Patent: 88,929 (US) on April 13, 1869.
1865 at age 19, he obtained his first patent, for a rotary steam engine.
1867 invented a device for replacing derailed rail-cars with greater ease and in shorter time
1867 He married Marguerite Erskine on Aug. 8, and had one child, George Westinghouse, 3rd.
1868 moved to Pittsburgh to obtain cheaper steel and arrange financing for his companies
1869 he obtained a patent for an air brake system for railroad cars both passenger and freight
1869 the Westinghouse Air Brake Co. was organized in Pittsburgh with Westinghouse as President
1881 started a company to build elecrical signal controls for the railroads
1885 he began pursuing the technology of alternating current to replace Edison's DC system,
1885 he purchased a company to supply natural gas to thousands of homes in Pittsburgh
1886 founded Westinghouse Electric, foreseeing the possibilities of alternating current
1888 acquired exclusive rights to Nikola Tesla's patent for the polyphase electrical system
1892 Westinghouse won the contract to light the 1893 Columbian Exposition at Chicago
1893 built 3 huge generators for harnessing the energy of the Niagara Falls into electrical energy
1895 he began the development of gas engines and built high-speed steam engines
1900 his companies were worth about $120 million and employed over 50,000 workers
1905 the first alternating current to railway systems of the Manhattan Elevated railways in New York
1910 Invented a compressed air spring for taking the shock out of automobile riding.
CAPs: Westinghouse, George Westinghouse, Air Brake, Nikola Tesla, William Stanley, Electricity, shock absorber, three phase alternating-current, transformaer, rotary steam engine, radio station KADA,  inventor, biography, profile, history, inventor of, history of, who invented, invention of, fascinating facts.
The Story:
The various Westinghouse Companies were the product of the mechanical inventiveness and the business acumen of one man--inventor, manufacturer and entrepreneur George Westinghouse. This prolific inventor influenced the course of history by enabling the growth of the railroads through his inventions and by promoting the use of electricity for power and transportation. As an industrial manager, his influence on industrial history is considerable, having formed and directed more than 60 companies to market his and others' inventions during his lifetime. His electric company became one of the greatest electric manufacturing organizations in the United States, and his influence abroad was evident by the many companies he founded in other countries.

In the ninth century the "Westinghausen" family was prominent in Westphalia, Germany, and in the 14th century a branch of the family emigrated to England and later the United States. George Westinghouses’ father in the early part of the nineteenth century moved from Vermont to Ohio and settled at Central Bridge, New York, as a farmer.

It was here at Central Bridge, New York on October 6, 1846 that George Jr. was born to George Westinghouse and his wife, Emmeline Vedder. When George was 10 years old his family moved to Schenectary, New York whee his father started the firm of G. Westinghouse & Company to manufactured farm implements.While working with his father young George acquired a realistic sense of tools, materials, machinery and structures.

After three years of military service during the Civil war, he returned to Schenectady, and in September 1865, enrolled as a sophomore at Union College. Within three months, however, he convinced himself and his teachers the college curriculum had little to offer to one with his mechanical learnings. He dropped out of the college at Christmas vacation and returned to his father's factory. One important thing did happen during his short stay in college: on October 31, 1865, at age 19, he obtained his first patent, for a rotary steam engine.

While traveling on the trains for his fathers business he observed the problem of derailed cars, and that led to his inventing a device for replacing derailed cars with greater ease and in shorter time. He formed a business in Schenectady with two men who put up $5000 each to finance the manufacture of the car replacer. That same year he married Marguerite Erskine on Aug. 8, in Brooklyn, New York, and had one child, George Westinghouse, 3rd.

Later, because of problems with his partners, he visited Pittsburgh to arrange for a steel company to make the car replacer at less cost. During visits to Pittsburgh he made the acquaintances of persons who shared his interests in railroads and his work on inventions and manufacturing for the industry, and who would eventually help him with his Pittsburgh companies.

Westinghouse saw that railroads could never live up to their potential until trains had a more effective brake. For three years he worked at improving train brakes. Attempt after attempt failed. But Westinghouse finally hit on the idea that worked. He would place an air compressor in the engine cab and pipes would carry the air to the brakes on each of the cars. The engineer could admit compressed air into the system to stop the train and release the air when he wanted to move. Previously, train accidents were frequent since brakes had to be applied manually on each car by different brakemen following a signal from the engineer.

On April 13, 1869, he obtained a patent for the air brake system, and in July, 1869, when he was still only twenty-two years old, the Westinghouse Air Brake Company was organized in Pittsburgh with Westinghouse as President. The company, with Westinghouse's inventions for braking and signaling systems, helped to revolutionize the railroads. He continued to make many changes in his air brake design and later developed the automatic air brake system and the triple valve.

His industry expanded as he opened companies in Europe and Canada. In the United States, he expanded into the railroad signaling industry by organizing the Union Switch and Signal Company in 1881. In this company, devices based on his own inventions and the patents of others were designed to control the increased speed and flexibility which was made possible by the invention of the air brake.

Natural gas caught Westinghouse’s attention after a well drilled on his own property produced a large flow of gas, and in 1885 he purchased the charter of the Philadelphia Co. Westinghouse supplied gas to thousands of private houses in Pittsburgh through many miles of pipe lines.

During his development of the braking and signaling systems, in the mid 1880s, Westinghouse became quite interested in electricity. His interest was piqued by the obvious disadvantages of Edison's DC system. He began pursuing the technology of alternating current and he associated with those who were developing AC devices. He obtained the U.S. rights to Gaulard and Gibbs system of distributing AC and hired William Stanley to redesign and improve the Gaulard-Gibbs "secondary converter", or transformer, as the device was later called.

Westinghouse organized the Westinghouse Electric Company to manufacture and promote the use of alternating-current system equipment, and became a spirited competitor of Edison and his DC system. He acquired exclusive rights to Nikola Tesla's patent for the polyphase system in 1888 and lured Tesla to join the electric company and continue his work on the AC motor he had been developing.

In 1892 Westinghouse won the contract to light the 1893 Columbian Exposition at Chicago. He manufactured over 200,000 lamps for lighting and replacements. The Westinghouse exhibit also included a complete working model of a polyphase system, including step-up and step-down transformers, a short length transmission line and switch board.

At about the same time Westinghouse was negotiating with the Cataract Construction Co. of Buffalo, NY, to supply AC generators to harness the energy of Niagara Falls. Westinghouse became the successful bidder over six other American companies that had been asked to bid. The generator specs called for three 5000 horse-power, two-phase generators, 2200 volts, 250 rpm, complete with switchboard and auxiliaries. The system was placed in commercial service in the fall of 1895. There followed many successes for Westinghouse's company in the fields of power generation and the application of electricity to industry, rail and marine transportation, the military and to the home.

In 1895, he began the development of gas engines and built high-speed steam engines designed by his brother, Herman. He acquired the American rights of the Parsons steam turbines in 1896, and made many improvements in turbine construction.

At the turn of the century, the various Westinghouse companies were worth about $120 million and employed approximately 50,000 workers. By 1904, there were 9 manufacturing companies of his in the U.S., 1 in Canada, and 5 in Europe.

Westinghouse made further industrial history by acquiring exclusive rights to manufacture the Parsons steam turbine in America and by introducing the first alternating current locomotive in 1905. The first major application of alternating current to railway systems was in the Manhattan Elevated railways in New York, and later in the New York subway system. The first single-phase railway locomotive was demonstrated in the East Pittsburgh railway yards in 1905, and soon after, the Westinghouse company began the task of electrifying the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad with the single-phase system between Woodlawn, NY, and Stamford, CT.

The financial panic of 1907 caused Westinghouse to lose control of the companies he had founded. In 1910, he found his last major concern, the invention of a compressed air spring for taking the shock out of automobile riding. By 1911, he had severed all ties with his former companies.

Spending much of his later life in public service, Westinghouse showed signs of a heart ailment by 1913 and was ordered to rest by doctors. After deteriorating health and illness confined him to a wheelchair, he died on March 12, 1914. With a total of 361 patents to his credit, his last patent was received in 1918, four years after his death.

Many honors accrued to him. Union College, where he had spent only three months as a youth, conferred upon him the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. He was awarded the John Fritz medal and the Franklin Institute's Scott premium and medal. He was one of two honorary members of the American Society for the Advancement of Science. Abroad, he was made a member of Frances' Legion of Honor. King Humbart of Italy decorated him with the Order of the Crown. King Leopold 11 of Belgium decorated him with the Order of Leopold. In Germany he was the first American to receive the Grashof medal, the highest honor bestowed by that country on an engineer.


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Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World
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The genius of such poet-scientists as Nikola Tesla depended on the more finely tuned business skills of George Westinghouse and the towering capital of J.P. Morgan to achieve actualization.
A Life of George Westinghouse
by Henry G. Prout / Paperback: 408 pages / Beard Books (November 1, 2001)
In the last part of the nineteenth century and the first part of the twentieth century, Westinghouse was concerned with the fundamental things that advanced civilization. He was instrumental in carrying forward the evolution of transportation and the manufacture of power.
Wilmerding and the Westinghouse Air Brake Company
by George Westinghouse Museum / Paperback: 128 pages / Arcadia Publishing (September, 2002)
When George Westinghouse Jr. founded the Westinghouse Air Brake Company, his air brakes, railroad equipment, and industrial pneumatic devices revolutionized rail travel, opening a new chapter in American industrial history. Not only were the products of his first company revolutionary, but the small borough he founded in 1890 in southwestern Pennsylvania became a model for residential and industrial development.

Power Plants
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Though the basic technology has remained constant for decades, continual improvements and refinements have made them far more efficient and powerful.

History of Westinghouse - An American Industrial Powerhouse
 DVD / Unrated / / Run Time: 70 /
Flash / Full Screen / Original recording remastered Westinghouse is still a household name – though many of us may be less than familiar with its founder George Westinghouse, and the hard work and vision that made his company a corporate legend. On this historic DVD is a solid overview of vintage film clips shot at the height of the Westinghouse dynasty.


George Westinghouse Virtual Museum
In the field of electricity he was not an inventor of fundamentals. He invented many useful details, but his great work was in stimulating, combining, and directing the work of other men.
George Westinghouse 1846-1914
He married Marguerite Erskine on Aug. 8, 1867, in Brooklyn, NY, and had one child, George Westinghouse, 3rd. From the Carngie Library.
Edison Award
Westinghouse was awarded the AIEE Edison Medal, named for his strongest opponent, in 1911 "For meritorious achievement in connection with the development of the alternating current system for light and power."
George Westinghouse - Problem Solver
Westinghouse received his first patent on the air brake in 1869. But he spent the rest of his life improving it. He would receive 103 patents related to the air brake before his death.
About George Westinghouse
The various Westinghouse Companies were the product of the mechanical inventiveness and the business acumen of one man--inventor and manufacturer George Westinghouse.
Invention Dimension - Inventor of the Week
Celebrates inventor/innovator role models through outreach activities and annual awards to inspire a new generation of American scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs.
National Inventors Hall of Fame
The National Inventors Hall of Fame™ honors the women and men responsible for the great technological advances that make human, social and economic progress possible.
The Westinghouse Air Brake Company
Originally organized in 1869 to manufacture the air brakes invented by George Westinghouse. The works and the yard together occupied approximately thirty acres. In 1905, approximately 3,000 workers were employed, and the output was 1,000 brake sets per day
Westinghouse Electric Corporation
You can be sure...if its Westinghouse. Founded in 1886 by George Westinghouse and still in operation today.
Who Made America - PBS Series
A tireless inventor and businessman, Westinghouse designed an air brake that made rail travel safer, and his promotion of an alternating current system revolutionized the power industry.
The Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company
The main function of the Electric & Manufacturing Company was to develop and produce "apparatus for the generation, transmission and application of alternating current electricity." (The Westinghouse Companies in the Railway & Industrial Fields, 1905) The company also produced electric railway motors, producing approximately 75,000 by 1905.

"If someday they say of me that in my work I have contributed something to the welfare and happiness of my fellow men, I shall be satisfied." - George Westinghouse

Railway Technical Web Pages
The air brake system is undoubtedly one of the most enduring features of railway technology.  It has lasted from its initial introduction in 1869 to the present day and in some places, still hardly different from its Victorian origins. 


  • More than sixty companies were founded by George Westinghouse.
  • Westinghouse earned 361 patents. Of those 103 patents related to the air brake.
  • One of George's 361 patents is a citywide telephone switching system, created long before widespread use by the telephone companies.
  • By the turn of the century his companies were worth about $120 million and employed over 50,000 workers
  • By 1905, over 2,000,000 freight, passenger, mail, baggage and express cars and 89,000 locomotives were equipped with the Westinghouse Quick-Action Automatic Brake
  • the first radio station in the world was Westinghouse KDKA in Pittsburgh;
  • the first practical induction motor
  • the first contract to harness the enormous water power of Niagara Falls
  • the first power station turbine generator
  • Westinghouse Appliances Division manufactured Sewing machines, washers, dryers, toasters, irons, grills, percolators, AM?FM radios and record players.
  • Westinghouse designed the first illuminated tennis court, lit by 1,500 bulbs.
Designated trademarks and brands are the property of their respective owners.
Reference Sources in BOLD Type. This page revised January 6, 2006.

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