Science and engineering are great, as long as they are used. Think of vaccines, which lose their value when fewer people make use of them. That is why this article on another icon of Electrical Engineering heroes not necessarily a man known for his inventions, but for his propagation of other men’s ideas.
The 19th century was host to some of the largest and most useful developments in physics, electronics and science in general. Electricity was not widely spread and cars were a commodity only for the richest. In fact, trains were the thing! Trains were used to connect the east and west coast of the United States and provided a quick means of transport for both cargo and passengers. The goal was to transfer loads quickly across the country. With speed in mind, brakes were of less importance. Which is where our hero comes in. He was witness to a catastrophic heads-on collision of two trains. Soon thereafter, at the age of 22, he invented air brakes for trains. This eliminated the need for train personnel to manually engage the brakes on each carriage. Instead, the train engineer could now apply the breaks on all carriages from his locomotive using a compressed air system. Later, our hero invented other improvements for the operation of trains such as better versions of his break system and shock absorbers (see figure 1).
Fortunately for us Electrical Engineers, this was not his largest feat. Because, at the end of this 19th century our hero, George Westinghouse, entered perhaps the largest war over engineering known to man.
War of the Currents
This war was built on the inventions of other people, especially in the field of Electrical Engineering. It all started in 1879 when Thomas Edison made large improvements in order to finally make the incandescent lights economically viable. This was also one of the first useful applications for electricity and it also became available to the general public. At first only the richest could enjoy electric lighting, but developments went quick and soon many people gained access to this new technology. To power all of these light bulbs, Edison developed a method of supplying it with DC-power. Westinghouse, on the other hand, was an advocate of AC-systems, which could power arc-lighting bulbs which were a more dangerous alternative to the incandescent lights powered by DC. Developments around DC were led by Edison and based in the United States. The development for AC-power originates from Eastern Europe and was mainly developed by the Croatian Nikola Tesla and the Hungarian Ganz Works company. Looking around in the current day clearly shows who won, but this victory was not trivial, in fact it took a full decade of rivalry until a winner could be announced.
Within these 10 years, Westinghouse was able to acquire the patents to many state-of-the-art inventions. He served the role of acquiring sufficient finances to buy up relevant patents and to develop AC-systems. Despite ups and downs regarding the finances and trust of the investors behind it, Westinghouse was able to pool together the right scientists and knowledge to prevail. The largest break-through was the procurement of a patent belonging to Tesla, namely his induction motor which was superior over other motors at the time. Westinghouse’s inhouse engineers were able to adjust the plans for the induction motor to make them applicable in the AC-system. An especially relevant aspect of the power systems was the transportation of power from the power plants (usually hydro plants near a large dam) where power was generated to cities a large distance away, with many innovative electrical applications making them hungry for power. DC-power lacked a proper way to convert between power levels1 to make transporting efficient or even worth-while. This was the shortcoming of DC-power and is what delivered the final blow to Edison’s DC-systems.
After burying the hatchet on power systems, Westinghouse continued to invent a variety of other devices and applications. In the latter part of his life he worked on shock absorbers for cars where he could readily apply his expertise from his earlier years working on trains. He also actively sought after a perpetual motion machine whilst working on a heat exchanger that would power itself. Lord Kelvin told Westinghouse that it would defy the laws of thermodynamics, but this challenge kept Westinghouse’s interest until he would pass away in 1914. Needless to say, he did not find a solution for a perpetual motion machine, but perhaps he took it to his grave. What does remain is the legacy of a network that is at the heart of the modern world.
Westinghouse provided the foundations for this network and his choices are still part of the AC-system that provides your very screen with power. Therefore, the inventions of this era of Electrical Engineering, and the inventors behind it, will be explored in a series on the War of Currents, here on the Vonk website. This series will next cover some of the first applications of electricity in the 19th century by looking at a man behind a SI-unit who is also the inventor of many useful applications of electricity which are the foundation of a German company that is still thriving today.
: W.W. Wood, “The Westinghouse E-T Air Brake Instruction Pocket Book”, 1909, New York, NY., USA: The Norman W. Henley Publishing Co.
Power loss in a cable is described by P = I² x R = I x U, so higher voltages are desirable to maintain low currents. A methodology applied in High Voltage lines in (current) AC-systems. ↩︎