George Westinghouse, Jr. was born in 1846 in upstate New York. He was the eighth of ten children, and his father–the owner of a tooling company–didn’t think his namesake would amount to much. George did poorly in school and preferred to spend time working on machines in his father’s shop.
The Civil War broke out when George was 15, and although he wanted to enlist right away, his father forced him to wait until he reached the age of 17. George first joined a cavalry regiment but was quickly transferred to the Navy, where his mechanical abilities were put to good use.
After the war, George attended Union College, but dropped out after only three months at the urging of the college president, who assured George that he was already a great engineer and that he was wasting his time in the classroom.
In 1868, George invented the airbrake, a device that not only improved the efficiency of trains, but saved the lives of thousands of brakemen who routinely died operating the old-fashioned manual brakes. This combination of innovation alongside a concern for the welfare of others would characterize his life.
George continued to invent things, eventually accumulating 360 patents. He also created a business empire encompassing 34 firms and about 50,000 employees. George treated his employees well, giving them more time off than any of his contemporaries and, unlike Thomas Edison, ensuring that the engineers who worked for him were rewarded for the inventions and innovations they developed while on his payroll. He was also the first industrialist to employee women engineers.
Perhaps the greatest compliment he ever received was an insult from fellow business leader Andrew Carnegie: “Westinghouse could have made a lot more money during his lifetime if he hadn’t treated his workers so well.”
Then, as now, big business was synonymous in the public mind with worker exploitation, corruption, and ruthless market manipulation. In the era of robber-barons, George Westinghouse was living proof that a businessman could be both great and good.
He is, in short, a capitalist hero, and should be seen as a role model for anyone who wishes to be both successful and virtuous.
If someday they say of me that in my work I have contributed something to the welfare and happiness of my fellow man, I shall be satisfied. -George Westinghouse