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Progress Before Profit: The George Westinghouse Story

Jeffrey Syken

As a young boy, it didn’t seem like George Westinghouse, Jr. would amount to much – at least as far as his teachers and even his own family was concerned. Young George Jr. wasn’t much for school; he’d much rather tinker around in his father’s agricultural machinery factory after school than do his homework. In 1864, George Jr. turned seventeen, old enough to join the Union Army as a cavalryman in the still raging Civil War. His mechanical aptitude was recognized while serving in the army, leading to his transfer to the U.S. Navy in an engineering capacity aboard ship. In later years, George Westinghouse (he dropped the “Junior” after the death of his father) would credit the education he received and discipline learned while serving in the army/navy as key to his success in life.

For a young man with mechanical aptitude and the will to make manifest his ideas, the post-Civil War period was ideal. His early inventions dealt with the main means of transportation of the era: steam-driven locomotives. At the time, to stop a speeding train required “Brakemen” atop the moving cars to turn a brake-wheel on each car, moving from car-to-car, braking each car in turn. Not only was the job extremely dangerous, it was highly inefficient (it could take up to two miles to stop a moving train). Hearing of a pneumatic drill being used to dig a tunnel through the French Alps, GW reasoned that the power of compressed air could also stop a moving train. The result was the Westinghouse “Air Brake” – a major breakthrough in transportation technology. It allowed for longer, heavier trains and put the traveling public at ease knowing the lethal dangers previously associated with rail travel no longer applied, all thanks to Westinghouse.

Throughout his life, GW and the many Westinghouse Company/s would make significant contributions to rail transportation (i.e. signals, switching etc.). On the success of the Westinghouse Air Brake Company, GW would build an industrial empire founded on the new religion of science and technology. He expanded into the natural gas industry and, recognizing the shortcomings of Thomas Edison’s Direct Current (DC), became the chief promoter of Alternating Current (AC) power generation/distribution. To solve the problems of AC, GW would obtain the patents of Nikola Tesla and retain him as a consultant. Indeed, winning the “Battle of the Currents” remains GW’s greatest legacy. To Tesla, GW was the greatest man he ever knew. Remembered for his honesty, good humor and personal integrity, GW created industries through technological innovation and established the foundations for positive industrial labor relations. To GW the humanitarian, invention and industry was simply his way of putting men to useful, productive work, for the betterment of all mankind.

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.

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NY PE & PLS: You must choose courses that are technical in nature or related to matters of laws and ethics contributing to the health and welfare of the public. NY Board does not accept courses related to office management, risk management, leadership, marketing, accounting, financial planning, real estate, and basic CAD. Specific course topics that are on the borderline and are not acceptable by the NY Board have been noted under the course description on our website.