Printer Friendly

An industrialist for the ages.

ALTHOUGH HE passed away almost a century ago, we still can learn today from America's greatest industrialist, the incomparable George Westinghouse (1846-1914). He should be an ideal role model for modem corporations--perhaps one that can be employed to overcome the greed and money mania that, in many cases, appear to be what motivates many of the highest level executives today. Westinghouse had 361 patents granted to him during his lifetime, and he acquired, or started, 60 different companies. Newspaper and magazine articles of the late 1800s and early 1900s quite often used the phrase "America's greatest living engineer" to describe him.

The Westinghouse air brake and friction draft gear had a tremendous impact on the early days of railroading. Moreover, three 5,000-horsepower Westinghouse generators that were installed in 1895 harnessed the awesome power of Niagara Falls. After this dramatic accomplishment, the country and the world were electrified, using alternating current (AC). In fact, for a while, it even was referred to as the "Westinghouse current."

The development of natural gas as a new fuel also was pushed forward by Westinghouse. He had 36 patents granted to him in the two years following the drilling of his first gas well, which was in the backyard of his home, Solitude, in the Homewood section of Pittsburgh, Pa. (Homewood was a fancy residential area and condiment king Henry Heinz lived right across the street.) At one point, Westinghouse had four gas wells, an alternating current power plant, and a set of street railway tracks in his backyard. The tracks were for testing and experimenting with various pieces of equipment and other apparatus for railway systems.

Westinghouse's work on the house geared steam turbine engine revolutionized the shipping industry. He had an interest in ship engines ever since serving as an officer in the Union Navy during the Civil War. Coupling a high-speed turbine with a ship's low-speed propeller turned out to be a most difficult challenge that finally was overcome with an ingenious bit of engineering referred to as "Westinghouse reduction gears." Later in life, he invented what he called an air spring to soften the ride on the newfangled machines called automobiles. He even started a business--the Westinghouse Automotive Air Spring Company--to manufacture and sell the new devices, which ultimately evolved into the shock absorbers we still use today.

Although he became a wealthy man, it is well documented that greed and money did not motivate Westinghouse. The force that drove him was the belief that his efforts, successes, and accomplishments would benefit mankind. Could there have been a more noble life's goal?

Westinghouse was known for treating--and paying--his workers quite well. "If you treat your workers with respect, give them a dean place to work, with the best of tool--then your company will be successful," he said. In many well-documented cases in the coal fields and iron and steel factories of Western Pennsylvania, these were not common practices. Westinghouse was the first major large company owner of the time to grant his workers a half-holiday on Saturdays. This was done at a time when the steel workers in the area were enduring 12-hour shifts and seven-day workweeks--and he was one of the first to institute a pension plan. His factories became show pieces for his advanced practices, such as having doctors and nurses in the plants so injured workers could receive immediate help. He even had a small hospital in some of his plants, not only for his workers, but for their family members as well.

When he built the Pennsylvania towns of Wilmerding, East Pittsburgh, and Trafford, he sold the homes to his workers with a monthly deduction from their paycheck, and he had the workers' homes insured so that, if the breadwinner passed away or was killed, his wife and children had a home that was paid in full. The usual practice in company-owned coal mining towns was to evict the wife and children within days of the death of a coal miner.

There never was a strike at any of the companies owned by Westinghouse despite it being an era of considerable labor-management conflict. Westinghouse was well respected, as his word was trustworthy--and his products invariably lived up to expectations. The Westinghouse Electric Company's earliest advertising slogan was ''Westinghouse: the name is a guarantee"--and he meant it.

Upon his death. Westinghouse's pallbearers were eight of his longest-serving employees. One of them was Christopher Horrocks, the very first man hired in 1869 at the Westinghouse Air Brake Company, when he was 23. An elegant Westinghouse memorial was dedicated in Pittsburgh's Schenley Park in 1930, paid for with contributions from the donations of 50,000 Westinghouse employees.

His engineers and other workers were willing to "walk through fire" for Westinghouse--and why not since he had an unbeatable team and was incredibly unselfish. It has been documented time and again that, if a Westinghouse engineer worked on an item that was patented, it was that person's name that went on the patent. This certainly contrasted with the practices of Westinghouse's major competitor, Thomas Edison.

As a result, new Westinghouse products often were referred to as Schallenberger meters, Schmid dynamos, Stanley transformers, and Stillwell voltage regulators. You can bet that Oliver Shallenberger felt like an integral part of the Westinghouse team when he saw these meters with his name cast boldly tight into every one of them along with the patent date. Benjamin Lamme had 162 patents during his career at the Westinghouse Electric Company. Every one of them was in his name.

Westinghouse saw the potential in ideas--such as using air to stop a train or employing high-voltage alternating current to overcome the tremendons line losses when transmitting direct current for distances greater than a half-mile. Westinghouse also saw the potential in people. He surrounded himself with good ones and was quite willing to purchase the patents of others if he thought they had potential.

Perhaps the best example of this is when he bought the patents rights for Nikola Tesla's alternating current induction motor and his polyphase system of alternating current. Westinghouse had been working on alternating current for years before he purchased these patents from this great Serbian inventor. These two patents were an important part of the puzzle that Westinghouse painstakingly had been putting together. Upon his death, he controlled more than 15,000 patents.

When Westinghouse passed away on March 12, 1914, he was buried in New York. Twenty-one months later, his body, and that of his wife, Marguerite, who only survived him by 90 days, were moved to Virginia's Arlington National Cemetery. Westinghouse was a patriotic American and had been proud to serve in the Civil War. He had made it known before his death that he wanted to be buffed at Arlington.

Although almost a century has passed since his death, Westinghouse's triumphs live on. When we casually flip on a light switch, the miracle of alternating current stays with us. Locomotives still are stopped by air brakes. The ride in our automobiles remains cushioned by compressed air. The list goes on and on--as does the legacy of George Westinghouse.

Edward J. Reis is a historian at the Senator John Heinz History Center, Pittsburgh, Pa, and former executive director of the George Westinghouse Museum, Wilmerding, Pa.
COPYRIGHT 2011 Society for the Advancement of Education
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2011 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:USA Yesterday
Author:Reis, Edward J.
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Date:May 1, 2011
Previous Article:White washing the i-35W bridge collapse: though it fell almost four years ago, questions still remain about the exact causes of the tragedy--and the...
Next Article:Appreciating and protecting your Family Heirlooms.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2022 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |