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Compressed-air brake system

George George Westinghouse was a visionary of technology and business, whose ideas transformed the safety and services of the American railroad and electricity industries.

Born in Central Bridge, New York, in 1846, Westinghouse moved with his family to nearby Schenectady when he was ten. At his father's machinery shop, the young Westinghouse learned to work with steam engines and other machines. At the age of fifteen, Westinghouse began service with the Union Army, which continued through the Civil War (1861-65).

Looking back later, Westinghouse would claim that his apprenticeship and his military service were the "greatest capital" with which he developed his various enterprises. After the War, Westinghouse enrolled at Union College, but soon left to rejoin his father's business. Westinghouse began a prolific career of inventing (over 300 inventions), with a patented rotary steam engine, a system for righting derailed railroad cars, and a railroad frog (a switch that allows a train's wheels to "leap" across intersecting rails at a junction).

Westinghouse saw that the railroads were essential to national industrialization. He also saw that the railways were insufficiently safe. After a few years' work, he invented and patented the first successful compressed-air brake system (1869), much more effective and efficient than manual brakes. The system manufactured by the Westinghouse Air Brake Company, the first of sixty companies founded by Westinghouse, soon became the industry standard.

To combat railroad traffic problems, Westinghouse created a system of signals and interlocking switches that used a combination of compressed air and electricity (1882). He founded another company, Union Switch & Signal, which marketed his own ideas in combination with inventions licensed from others.

Westinghouse had invented a special reduction valve that allowed highly pressurized natural gas to be emitted at the point of use in bursts at low pressure. Certain that a similar system could be used to deliver electricity, Westinghouse worked with an English engineer to develop a transformer that could "step down" alternating current (AC) electricity from the high voltage needed to carry it long distances to a lower voltage suited to the point of use.

At that time, Thomas Edison was convinced that his direct current (DC) system, being used in New York City, could not be outdone, despite that the effective range of delivery for DC electricity was at most three miles. Westinghouse founded Westinghouse Electric in Pittsburgh (1886), and went head to head against Edison's General Electric, employing Nikola Tesla to work with him to create the motors and equipment necessary to deliver alternating current (AC) to a nearly unlimited number of users over great distances.

After a number of impressive public demonstrations, including the Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893, Westinghouse's and Tesla's AC system was supreme: soon, 95% of public electricity was switched to the AC system; and even General Electric was forced to cross-license Westinghouse's patents (1896). With this victory, Westinghouse began to gain the well deserved fame that has lasted beyond his death in 1914, including his induction into the Hall of Fame for Great Americans (1957) and the National Inventors Hall of Fame (1989).

[Oct. 1998]

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