The 10 Brands That Built Pittsburgh
(page 10 of 11)
By mark houser
images courtesy WESTINGHOUSE
When George Westinghouse obtained his first patent, he was still a teenager — though also a Civil War veteran. The talented young inventor soon moved to Pittsburgh, looking for money men to bankroll a company to manufacture his ingenious railroad air brake.
The wealth and fame that followed fueled success after lucrative success, from train signals and switches to natural gas drilling and pipelines to electrical power generation, securing more than 300 patents for Westinghouse and creating a global brand that still represents innovation and technology more than a century after his death.
Westinghouse Electric pioneered radio with KDKA and supplied American and global consumer markets with home appliances for decades; a Westinghouse pressurized water reactor powered America’s first commercial nuclear power plant in Shippingport.
The corporation doubled down on its broadcasting background in the 1990s, selling off its industrial businesses and buying CBS. But Westinghouse Electric Company remains in Cranberry Township, now owned by Toshiba and employing close to 4,000 people in the region; the company keeps light bulbs shining with the technology behind approximately half of the world’s nuclear power plants.
The tradition of innovation that began with George Westinghouse (above) would grow even beyond the 300 patents held by the man himself, including the development of alternating current (announced in an 1888 brochure, below) to experiments in the company’s “atom smasher” (top of page) through the 1950s.
- The reduction valve Westinghouse invented for transferring highly pressurized gas from pipelines to homes later was adapted into his idea for an electrical transformer.
- Thomas Edison and his backers persuaded New York officials to use Westinghouse equipment in the first electrocution of a condemned man in 1890, hoping to scare the public into favoring DC power instead.
- In the end, Edison’s tactic didn’t work. Westinghouse beat Edison’s General Electric and won the bid to light the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. With the success of the “White City” fairgrounds, the country’s power-transmission network soon became an AC affair.
- KDKA went live Nov. 2, 1920, delivering election returns to become the world’s first commercial radio broadcast. The next year, the station would be first to broadcast a game of baseball (Pirates over Phillies 8-5) and college football (Pitt 21, West Virginia 13).
- The company’s experimental “Atom smasheR” in Forest Hills, built in 1937 and shaped like a giant light bulb, was taken down last year.
“George Westinghouse was one of the most remarkable innovators in American history. Out of his fertile brain came more than 300 patentable ideas. That’s an astounding achievement. One of the first was the air brake, and that revolutionized railroad transportation and made it safer and much more economical because you could triple or quadruple the length of trains and not fear an accident. That was just the beginning; Union Switch & Signal, Westinghouse Electric and a whole family of companies all had Westinghouse at their heart ... I think back to the World’s Fair of 1939, when [the company] built the first robot, Elektro. He was 7’1”; he could walk, talk, recognize the colors red and green, and of course, he could smoke cigarettes — he smoked like a chimney! … People were so taken with him that they said to the Westinghouse company, ‘You should build him a woman. He’s like an Adam, he needs his Eve.’ But the designs were so frightening — imagine Madonna in a Target bra and made of metal — it was so scary that the Westinghouse engineers built him a dog instead ... You know that ‘We Can Do It!’ Rosie the Riveter image? That was done by a Westinghouse artist named J. Howard Miller in 1943 … If you look at her collar disk, you’ll see her security badge says Westinghouse Electric on it. You talk about brands and icons, that’s one of the most iconic images in the world today.”
— Andrew Masich, president and CEO, Sen. John Heinz History Center