Westinghouse was successful because he could turn an idea into an enterprise

— Photo by Rosemary Christoff Dolan

The monument at the birthplace of George Westinghouse in Old Central Bridge bears Westinghouse’s own words.

— Photo by Rosemary Christoff Dolan

In 1996, guests gathered at the George Westinghouse birthplace to celebrate the sesquicentennial of the inventor’s birth. From left is Jean Westinghouse, wife of George Westinghouse IV, the inventor's great-grandson from Atlanta; Frank Wicks, professor of mechanical engineering at Union College who organized the tribute; and Dr. Susan Staffa, researcher and curator of the Westinghouse exhibit held at Union College in 1996.

To the Editor:

George Westinghouse, Old Central Bridge and Schenectady’s world-famous son, will be honored with the unveiling of a life-size bronze statue on Wednesday, June 14, at 5 p.m. in downtown Schenectady at the northwest corner of South Ferry Street and Erie Boulevard, across from the Thomas Edison and Charles Steinmetz statues.

The ceremony will be followed by a reception at the First Reformed Church at 8 North Church Street in Covenant Hall, at 6:15 p.m.

The statue was created by Dexter Benedict and depicts George as a teenager working in his father’s shop. The statue was made possible by the Schenectady Downtown Revitalization Initiative.

It was a serendipitous writing assignment in 1996 that piqued my interest in George Westinghouse. The Cobleskill Times-Journal asked me to cover the sesquicentennial of his 1846 birth in Old Central Bridge in Schoharie County.

The Westinghouse tribute was organized by Frank Wicks, a professor of mechanical engineering at Union College. He planned the tribute for months with the Central Bridge Civic Association, which sponsored the event at the firehouse. At the time, Dr. Wicks was also a volunteer historian of the George Westinghouse exhibit at the Union College Nott Memorial. The exhibit ran in November and December of 1996. 

Frank Wicks continues his efforts to celebrate Westinghouse. Most recently, he was on the statuary committee awarded funding to have the artist cast the bronze statue to be unveiled next week.

Charles A. Ruch, a former public relations employee at Westinghouse Electric in Pittsburgh was the keynote speaker. Following his retirement in 1965, Ruch was a co-founder, and served as volunteer historian of the George Westinghouse Museum in Pittsburgh from 1987 to 1998.

A passionate Westinghouse impersonator, he donned period clothing and a handlebar mustache and shaggy  sideburns to tell the story of the inventor and entrepreneur. He attributed Westinghouse’s great success to his ability to turn an idea into an enterprise.

One of the strengths of Westinghouse Electric, Ruch said, was the open-minded policy toward the inventions of others, always incorporating the name with the article invented. At his peak from 1893 to 1907, Westinghouse was considered to be the largest private employer in industrial history, with 100,000 employees from coast to coast.

In stark contrast to most employers when ruthless exploitation was the norm, Westinghouse was known for his kindness and fairness. In 1871, he was the first to offer half-day Saturday holidays, the precursor to the five-day work week. He protected employees from loss of earnings, provided widow’s benefits to survivors, offered a pension plan and paid vacations. He also  founded a planned community for employees with a pool, bowling alley, dance hall, restaurant, and library.

The inventor’s great-grandson from Atlanta, George Westinghouse IV, was visiting the “Westinghouse Birth and Boyhood Home” for the first time that day.

Lorraine Davis, a Central Bridge physician and owner of the house from 1982 to 2021, painstakingly restored the home and had it listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986.

George Westinghouse Jr. was born in Old Central Bridge on Oct. 6, 1846. George was the eighth of 10 children born to George Westinghouse Sr. and Emaline Vedder Westinghouse, both of whom came from generations of farmers and mechanics.

George’s father was a talented inventor in his own right, having built a wheat-threshing machine that helped revolutionize American agriculture. The threshing-machine industry was the mainstay of the Central Bridge village during the last half of the 19th Century.

By the age of 7, George Junior was already tinkering with inventing motors and machines. George preferred inventing to attending school and was often truant.

His father had little patience with the boy and threw George’s early creations onto the scrapheap. When George was 10, his father moved the family to Schenectady where he established a farm-implement manufacturing plant called G. Westinghouse & Co. It was located where the General Electric company was later built.

Young George worked at his father’s shop in Schenectady, starting at age 13. By the age of 15, he had invented the rotary steam engine for which he would receive his first patent four years later, in 1865.

Acclaimed in his time as the “greatest living engineer,” his pioneering work with railroads and electric power systems revolutionized these two industries. During his lifetime, he received 361 patents on inventions and founded some 60 companies.

In his work with railroads, he began to search for a way to stop trains reliably and swiftly. During the 1860s, the only way to stop a train was by a whistle from the locomotive signaling the brakemen. The brakemen responded by jumping from car to car and turning a handwheel under each car. This was a dangerous job and those fortunate enough to survive it often lost one or more of their fingers.

Westinghouse experimented with new braking systems, looking for a centralized system that could be operated by the engineer in the locomotive. He came upon the idea of using compressed air and on April 13, 1869, while still a resident of Schenectady, he received his patent for the air brake.

At age 22, he went on to form the Westinghouse Air Brake Company at Wilmerding, Pennsylvania, and later, the Westinghouse Electric Company at Pittsburgh.

A robust man of six feet with an imposing presence and charismatic personality, he preferred to avoid the limelight. Unlike Thomas Edison, Westinghouse was not a relentless self-promoter.

He was a humanitarian and visionary who fathomed that his inventions would benefit mankind. He stood his ground articulately in letters to trade publications and in arguing court proceedings against his detractors. Many tried to discredit him and foremost among these was Thomas Edison.

By 1879, Thomas Edison had invented the first practical incandescent light bulb. A longtime proponent of direct current (DC), he developed electric generation plants using DC current. Edison’s existing DC current motors were costly and complex, with low power output and incapable of distributing electricity for more than one-half mile.

Westinghouse formed Westinghouse Electric in 1886 to compete with Edison’s DC system. He purchased patents from the brilliant Serbian inventor Nikola Tesla. Like Westinghouse, Tesla was an idealist who understood that his groundbreaking induction motor and polyphase system would improve the world.

Tesla sold the manufacturing rights to Westinghouse, who  made improvements to create commercially viable systems capable of distributing electricity at high voltage over long distances using alternating  current (AC). The high voltage was then stepped down by transformers to make it safe for use by customers.

Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse were bitter rivals in the “War of the Electric Currents” — AC vs. DC.  Edison and the anti-AC crusaders launched a vicious attack to have Westinghouse’s alternating current outlawed by the legislature in New York State, and advocated for electrocution by AC current to replace hanging as the official capital punishment. This didn’t happen.

George Westinghouse won the contract to light the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago and lit the fair for six months. In a dramatic demonstration, Westinghouse provided the greatest display of incandescent lighting to that time.

This success was followed by the Niagara Falls hydroelectric project in 1896. Using three polyphase generators, Westinghouse harnessed a total of 15,000 horsepower from Niagara Falls and transmitted the power 25 miles away to Buffalo. This demonstrated the practicality of the alternating current transmission system.

Westinghouse proved that AC current was here to stay. Westinghouse AC current still electrifies and powers our world today.

George Westinghouse spent his formative years in Central Bridge and Schenectady, and his adult life in  Pittsburgh. However, he doesn’t belong to any one geographic area. George Westinghouse belongs to the world.

A granite monument in the front yard of his birthplace bears Westinghouse’s own words: “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.”

Rosemary Christoff Dolan


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