It’s possible that the name of Westinghouse would be a dimly remembered one, one of the legions of upstate New York manufacturers who rose and fell in the industrial boom that accompanied the Erie Canal. George Westinghouse Sr. started as a simple farmer who showed flourishes of mechanical genius and built an agricultural implements business in Schenectady on land that would later be swallowed up by an even greater industrial giant, General Electric. We covered all that yesterday. But that George Westinghouse had a son named George, and that son turned his own mechanical brilliance into a business that rivaled his hometown giant. In the end, he didn’t build it in his hometown, but in the western boomtown of Pittsburgh. Nevertheless, George Westinghouse Jr. was very much a product of what wasn’t yet the Electric City.
He was born Oct. 6, 1846, when his family was still living in Central Bridge, far enough out of the mainstream that it became a problem when his father decided to expand the business; for that, they needed to move closer to where metal could be worked, in Schenectady, so the family moved there in 1856. Leupp (in his George Westinghouse: His Life and Achievements) wrote that young George,
though he waked up more after the removal to Schenectady, did not expand mentally in the direction his father had hoped. He was sent to school, but took only a languid interest in his studies, though he profited somewhat by his more enlivening companionship. Of this, however, he could not reap the fullest advantage, as his father was able to see little virtue in play, regarding it simply as a form of idleness, and preferring that George should come into the shop every day after school hours and learn how tools were used by skilled hands … To stand at the elbow of a mature man for an hour and watch the plying of saw and plane, the boring of holes, and the driving of screws was a dreary occupation for him. When for a change he was shifted over to the neighborhood of his brother John, and looked on at the latter’s handling of the metal parts, he felt more at liberty to criticize, and before five minutes had elapsed the two lads would be in a heated controversy, in which the temper of each would occasionally break bounds. If, on the other hand, he was taken away from all the rest of the workers and set at a bench by himself, with a pattern before him and the material and tools at hand for making a duplicate of it, his attention would soon wander from his fixed task and he would become immersed in some mechanism of his own contriving – a little engine, or a miniature water wheel with fanciful connections, or what not.
Leupp tells further tales of George’s youth, in the style of biographies of the time, and it’s impossible to tell whether they bear any resemblance to events that actually happened. He says that George became a great tinkerer, and that he attended school at the corner of Union and College streets, which I believe would have been the first free school in Schenectady, the former West College building of Union College, which the city acquired and opened in 1852 (though it is possible it refers to the Delavan building, at the same intersection). “A few of his schoolfellows of this period are still living in Schenectady,” Leupp wrote in 1919 , “and remember George as a rather inept pupil. It was not that his mind was dull; but the books he was required to study failed as a rule to stir his imagination, and he had only an indifferent gift of self-expression … This puzzled most of his teachers, because his logical faculties, when applied to something which had captured his fancy, struck them as considerably above the average. He was also keen as to everything mathematical, and in free-hand drawing he excelled all competitors with circles that were round, and lines that were straight, and angles that measured the required number of degrees.”
The Civil War came and George, “though only fourteen years of age, was smitten with the prevalent martial fever.” His brothers Albert and John enlisted, and Leupp writes that George attempted to leave town by train to enlist as well, but was caught by his father. (Other sources say he enlisted in the New York National Guard and served until his parents convinced him to return home. But the war continued, and in 1863 he joined Company M, 16th NY Cavalry and rose to corporal. In December 1864 he resigned from the Army to join the Navy (or perhaps was transferred, following the death of brother Albert in battle), and was Acting Third Assistant Engineer on the USS Muscoota until the end of the war. As we’ve mentioned before, the Smithsonian has a webpage featuring one of the letters from George Sr. to his son, written toward the close of the war in 1865, two months after Lee’s surrender.
Schenectady, June 11th 1865
My Dear Son
Your letters of 23 & 25th last was rec’d on Thursday last, both were verry welcome letters. We had one from John on Monday dated at Havanna 29th, he is well. I am pleased to hear that you have sent in your resignation, as I think it will be much better for you to be home. I hope you will continue to retain good health as that is the greatest blessing that can attend any one. John has not said any thing about resigning so I do not know whether he will or not. If he don’t they will discharge him unless he shall get some strong recommend to remain. If he wanted to follow the business it would be better for him to remain in the Gov’t service than to go in the Merchant service.
We are having some demand for our machines and keep to work about as usual. I have hopes that we shall come out better at the end of this year than we have for the past two years but we can’t tell yet.
Jay and [Brant?] has gone to Port Jervis and will be back tomorrow or next day. Your mother is feeling rather better than when I last wrote.
Write often as we always like to hear from you.
I wrote to you when I last wrote that your patent was ordered to issue when the balance of the Gov’t fee was paid: $20.
The patent referred to (No. 50,759) was for a rotary steam engine, which was granted Oct. 31, 1865. “Be it known that I, George Westinghouse, Jr., of the city and county of Schenectady, and State of New York, have invented a new and useful improvement in Rotary Engines.” It would not be his last. Wikipedia lists 31 significant patents (actually, 32, but the first is his father’s, for a grain winnower), and there were many, many more.
Prout’s A Life of George Westinghouse says that on returning from the war, not yet nineteen years old, George entered Union College in the scientific department as a sophomore, but only lasted for a single term. “His father was able and willing to send him through college, but George preferred active work.” He went back to his father’s shop. Somehow he became interested in railroads, and here, too, the stories of why are probably apocryphal, all having to do with some chance meeting or the witnessing of a crash. The likely reality is that Westinghouse liked to solve problems, and the rapidly growing railroad industry had a local presence (in the Schenectady Locomotive Works) and no shortage of problems. While still working in Schenectady, George was issued patents for a car re-placing (re-railing) device and for railroad frogs (the crossing point of two rails). He is said to have witnessed a collision on the Schenectady to Troy line in which the engineers saw the impending tragedy, but were unable to stop in time because brakes had to be applied manually from the top of each car, leading him to devise a compressed air braking system that allowed the engineer to brake cars simultaneously. That development, in 1869, sealed his future.
He met his future wife on a train, appropriately enough, while traveling home from New Jersey where some of his devices were to be manufactured. He became smitten with Miss Marguerite Erskine Walker of Roxbury, New York. After two visits to Kingston, where she had relatives, and three to Roxbury (if Leupp is to be believed), they were engaged to be married in 1867. (All the sources say they made their first home in Pittsburgh, but they also say that he was still in Schenectady in 1869, so the timeline isn’t clear; it appears George departed for Pittsburgh shortly after the marriage, and called for his young bride shortly thereafter.)
It’s natural to wonder why Westinghouse didn’t set up shop in his hometown, where there were railroad companies and, not too far away, steel-making. He was traveling to some major cities to sell his frogs and car-replacer, and to tout the possibilities of his air brakes, and this certainly put him in touch with key figures in Pniladelphia, Pittsburgh, and Chicago. Some of the answer may be in a falling-out he is said to have had with his business partners, who when business was falling off demanded that he buy them out, which he was not in a position to do, or to simply let them have his patent, which he refused to do. This, again according to Leupp, pushed him to consider a deal with a steel-making plant in Pittsburgh, Anderson and Cook, that could make his car-replacement apparatus much more cheaply than it could be made in the Capital District, and which was willing to cast the equipment at their own expense and hire George on to sell them. (Whether his former partners considered the matter thus settled, we haven’t learned.) He departed for Pittsburgh, bringing his bride along in the autumn of 1868, and there built a tremendous industry. While his parents and family remained in Schenectady the rest of their days, George’s business was built in the steel city. It wasn’t long before he delved into the electrical world, where the Westinghouse companies made a name developing (in part from patents of Tesla) alternating current transmission and motors, ultimately winning the War of the Currents.
There is a lot of detail about Westinghouse’s life after that air brake patent in the various biographies, and a lot of it may be just as fanciful as we suspect Leupp’s and Prout’s accounts were. (Leupp’s was far from the worst of the biographies we found; Levine’s 1962 “Inventive Wizard George Westinghouse” reports pages of conversation as fact without the slightest attribution.) All this filler and questionable events (for instance, one account says that the family left Central Bridge after a series of fires, something not mentioned in the more contemporary biographies) are likely the result of Westinghouse’s reticence to speak publicly, give interviews, or do anything other than work and invent. While quite a few of the lies about Edison’s life came straight from his own mouth because he loved regaling reporters, and while Tesla had some of the leading technology writers of the day not only following him around but advising him, Westinghouse seems to have kept the press at a distance. He never wrote or dictated an autobiography. So in the end, we know very little about his life in Schenectady.
His birthplace in Central Bridge still stands (so apparently wasn’t consumed by fire) and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Of the family home on State Street, there of course has been no trace for decades. A home that George built for his mother, originally intended as something of a country home because it was so far out of the city at the time, still stands, although legend has it that she rarely if ever went there. Today it is the venerable Bond Funeral Home.
We’ve barely touched on the importance of George Jr.’s accomplishments – the air brake alone was transformative. There’s a good summary of all that he did at this site.