Following up on the Inventor Series is the last combatant in the War of the Currents, George Westinghouse. A practical and talented inventor, Westinghouse was the quintessential entrepreneur/engineers from a generation of innovative Americans. By the age of 19, Westinghouse had his first invention under his belt, the rotary steam engine. His early inventions centered on the railroad industry with practical devices including the car replacer, a guide for derailed train cars, and the reversible frog, which is still used to switch trains onto tracks. Other inventions included the shock absorber for the early automobile, as well as work in area of the modern heat pump. It was the patent for the air brake in 1869 that made Westinghouse famous. Virtually universal in it use, George Westinghouse was only 22 when this patent was issued and the Westinghouse Air Brake Company was established.
In 1886, Edison was quoted as saying that Westinghouse would “kill a customer within six months” with his distribution network of alternating current. His prediction proved correct. The following year, a young telegraph operator died after touching a fallen wire energized by AC electricity. Lobbyist on both sides of the argument came to the fore and Edison himself led a gruesome media campaign against his rival that included the execution of a baby elephants with alternating current. Westinghouse countered by pointing out the number of fires created by DC equipment and the cumbersome nature of the wiring required by Edison’s form of electricity. The money men brought an end to the clash of the electrical geniuses when J. P. Morgan forced Edison out of his own business and merged Edison Machine with Thomson-Houston Electric Company, creating a new company known as General Electric. The following year, Westinghouse won the bid to light the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. This was a crucial moment is the history of utilities for George Westinghouse was able to demonstrate the efficiency and safety of AC electricity. By 1893, alternating current was now firmly established as the power supply of choice by the American public.
Westinghouse had the foresight to invest heavily in innovations. Marshalling the talent of William Stanley, Albert Schmid, Oliver Shallenberger and Nicola Tesla, he surrounded himself with the best and the brightest engineers of his time. In 1893, Westinghouse hired Bertha Lamme Feicht, the first woman formally trained as a mechanical engineer. A native of Ohio, Feicht graduated from Ohio State the same year.
Irony of ironies, in 1911 Westinghouse won the prestigious Edison Medal from the American Institute of Electrical Engineers. Named for his rival Thomas Edison, the inscription reads: "For meritorious achievement in connection with the development of the alternating current system.”
Since the mid-1950s, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers has given medals in honor of Westinghouse, as well. In 2015, this award was given to Dr. Karen Thole of Penn State (gold), and Dr. Angela Violi (silver) of the University of Michigan. This is the first time the two awards were given to women in the same year. Imagine what Bertha would make of this!