This article discusses the stature of George Westinghouse as an engineer who is rivaled by his skill and integrity as a leader. Beginning with the railroad air brake, Westinghouse’s inventiveness formed the basis of a commercial empire. Given the evidence of his companies when he controlled them, there is another case to be made for George Westinghouse that he may also have been America’s greatest living industrial manager. George Westinghouse was honored in many ways during his lifetime. In 1874, he was awarded the Scott Legacy Medal by the Franklin Institute. He was made a member of France’s Legion of Honor in 1895. The American engineering societies in 1905 honored him with the John Fritz Medal. He was awarded the Edison Medal, named for his greatest competitor, in 1912. In 1913, he became the first American to receive the Grashoff Medal from Germany.
The case can be made that by the late 1800s George Westinghouse was America’s greatest living engineer. He had 361 patents issued to him during his lifetime. Hundreds more patents bore the names of engineers who worked for him. Beginning with the railroad air brake, Westinghouse’s inventiveness formed the basis of a commercial empire.
He surrounded himself with good people, including other great engineers of the time—Benjamin Lamme, Oliver Shallenberger, Charles Scott, William Stanley, Lewis Stillwell, and Albert Schmid. They were loyal to him and got credit for their work.
Given the evidence of his companies when he controlled them, there is another case to be made for George Westinghouse: that he may also have been America’s greatest living industrial manager.
Many today recognize Westinghouse as a great inventor and a great engineer. His skills as a business manager are sometimes overlooked. It took considerable managerial skill to organize and run companies in many different countries at a time when transportation was limited to trains and ships.
Westinghouse’s companies spanned the world. Besides his holdings in the United States, he had an air brake company and an electric company in England. He also had air brake companies in Canada, France, Italy, and Russia. He was the president of 34 separate companies at the same time, with a total of 50,000 employees.
Although he became a wealthy man, greed and money did not motivate him. The forces that drove Westinghouse were those that engineers share—his strong personal belief that his efforts, his successes, his many and varied accomplishments were going to benefit mankind.
Walking through Fire
The old-timers used to say that his engineers and other workers were willing to “walk through fire” for George Westinghouse. How could they not be enthusiastic? After all, they were on a winning team.
The awesome power of Niagara Falls had been harnessed in 1895 using Westinghouse alternating current. Trains were longer, heavier, and faster, and yet much, much safer with Westinghouse air brakes. Natural gas had been discovered in 1878 in Murrysville, Pa., and the early patents of George Westinghouse helped to rapidly develop it into a new clean-burning fuel. Ship propulsion had gained a great leap forward with the Westinghouse geared steam turbine engine.
George Westinghouse believed that his engineers deserved the credit for their hard work and successes. If a Westinghouse engineer developed a new product, it was the inventor’s name, not the boss’s, that went on the patent. New products from the Westinghouse companies were referred to as Shallenberger meters, Scott voltage regulators, Schmid dynamos, Stanley transformers, and Stillwell voltage regulators.
Benjamin Lamme invented 162 devices that were patented during his career at the Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Co. Every single one of those patents was issued in the name of Benjamin Lamme.
George Westinghouse saw the potential in ideas. Ideas like using air to stop a train. He also saw the potential in people. He was quite willing to purchase the patents of others if he thought they had potential. The best example perhaps is the case where he purchased the patents rights to Nikola Tesla’s alternating current induction motor and polyphase system of alternating current.
Westinghouse had been working on alternating current for four years before he purchased these patents from the great Serbian inventor. The Tesla patents were an important part of the alternating current puzzle that George Westinghouse had painstakingly been putting together.
He bought plenty of ideas and rights, and eventually controlled over 15,000 patents.
Ed Reis is the Westinghouse historian at the Senator John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh. He was advisor and participant in the documentary film Westinghouse, produced by Inecom Entertainment Co.
Westinghouse was also a great engineer. From early childhood he loved all things mechanical. In his father’s shops he tinkered continuously. As a young boy, he made a working model water wheel. He made a working model steamboat at age 14. He made a violin.
His first patent was for a rotary steam engine. He started to work on it at age 15 and the patent was granted to him at age 19, shortly after he returned home in 1865, after having served in the U.S. Army and Navy for a period of two years during the Civil War.
He was never able to make this rotary engine a commercial success, but it’s interesting to see the role of high-speed rotating generators, turbines, and electric motors in the overall success of electrical power. George Westinghouse’s involvement in the development of the Westinghouse geared steam turbine engine for the shipping industry also is associated once again with a highspeed rotating device.
Later in life, George Westinghouse said that his greatest educational experience was the mechanical skills he learned while tinkering in his father’s shop. He said that these skills, learned when he was a young boy, formed the foundation of mechanical skills that served him well throughout his lifetime.
Westinghouse is legendary for the good personal rapport he maintained with his workers.
In 1935, Westinghouse Electric wrote to older retirees from the Westinghouse companies and even from the railroads, asking them to write back with personal remembrances of George Westinghouse. This was more than 20 years after George Westinghouse had died, but the.20. or so returned letters are quite fascinating because they detail many personal stories and provide insight into George’s personality and business practices.
One of the letters told the story of how the writer and some others were outside eating lunch one day when a newly hired foreign-born worker was moving a wheelbarrow of material into the plant. It had rained and there was a board placed over a wet and muddy area. The wheelbarrow slipped and tipped over. The letter writer told how he and the other young men laughed at their co-worker’s misfortune.
By chance, George Westinghouse appeared, and without saying a word, he walked over, took off his gloves, and stepped into the water and mud, where he helped the young man right the wheelbarrow and reload it. The story goes that George Westinghouse then walked away without a glance and without a word.
Westinghouse always treated his workers well. In fact, it was his high-powered contemporary, Andrew Carnegie, who said, “George Westinghouse could have made a lot more money during his lifetime if he hadn’t treated his workers so well.”
There was never a strike at any of the Westinghouse companies in all the time he had control of them. The company’s record was set in an era of violent clashes between labor and management. There were the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, the Homestead Steel Strike of 1892, and the Pullman Strike of 1894. Strikers burned Union Station in Pittsburgh. The Pennsylvania Railroad’s Roundhouse and numerous locomotives and railroad cars burned with it. The destruction took place within a stone’s throw of the Westinghouse Air Brake Co. factory, which remained untouched.
Looking Out for his Own
George Westinghouse once spelled out a fairly simple rule of management. “If you treat your workers well,” he said, “if you treat your workers with respect, give them a nice place to work, with the best of tools, then your company will be successful.”
He offered pension plans to his workers. His factories became showpieces of advanced practices, like having doctors and nurses in the plants so injured workers could receive immediate help. He even had small hospitals in his plants, open not only to his employees, but also to their families.
When he built the towns of Wilmerding, East Pitts-burgh, and Trafford in Pennsylvania, he would sell the homes to his workers with a monthly deduction from their paychecks. And he had the workers’ homes insured, so that, if the breadwinner died, his wife and children had a home that was paid off.
Standard practice in coal mining towns of western Pennsylvania was to evict the wife and children within days of the death of a coal miner.
Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor and the leading trade unionist in the late 1800s and early 1900s, once said, “If all business owners treated their workers as well as George Westinghouse, the American Federation of Labor would have to go out of business.”
Ironically, it was his refusal to become a robber baron that led to George Westinghouse’s downfall.
J.P. Morgan, the extremely wealthy and powerful New York banker, had contrived with others to limit competition by forming trusts. When the General Electric trust was formed, Westinghouse refused to participate because he considered it an unethical business practice. Morgan did not forget.
During an economic downturn in 1906, the Westinghouse companies ran short of cash. An industrial power like that should have found it easy to get money to ride out the slump, but Morgan had found an opportunity to punish Westinghouse by pressuring lenders to withhold cash and wresting control of the companies from him.
The loss of his companies was a shocking blow to Westinghouse, both mentally and financially. Although he still had considerable wealth and some of his other companies had survived, it was said that he never fully recovered and that he was never the same man again.
Upon his death in 1914, his pallbearers were eight of his oldest workers. They included Christopher Horrocks, the very first worker whom Westinghouse hired in 1869, when he started the Westinghouse Air Brake Co. in Pittsburgh.
The Most Cherished Honor
George Westinghouse was honored in many ways during his lifetime. In 1874, he was awarded the Scott Legacy Medal by the Franklin Institute. He was awarded the Order of Leopold by Leopold II, King of the Belgians, in 1884, and in 1889 received the Order of the Royal Crown of Italy from Umberto I. He was made a member of France’s Legion of Honor in 1895. The American engineering societies in 1905 honored him with the John Fritz Medal. He was awarded the Edison Medal, named for his greatest competitor, in 1912. In 1913, he became the first American to receive the Grashoff Medal from Germany.
It is said that this very humble man was moved the most when he was offered the presidency of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in 1910. He always considered himself to be a mechanical engineer, even though he had no formal education beyond the age of 16. It was an honor that came from his peers, his fellow engineers.
Another telling honor came to him years after he died, and it attests to his managerial rather than to his engineering talents.
A memorial to George Westinghouse was dedicated in Pittsburgh’s Schenley Park in 1930, not far from his Pittsburgh mansion, Solitude. The memorial was privately funded, raised from contributions by thousands of employees and retirees of Westinghouse companies.