George Westinghouse was the father of alternating current. He fought (successfully) with rival inventor Thomas Edison for the realization of a power grid that would revolutionize America. His mark has been left throughout the Pittsburgh region.
He was born in New York in 1846 as the eighth of ten children. After the Civil War, Westinghouse came back home and immediately began a pattern of invention. He designed air breaks for railroads to allow greater breaking power, and his air brakes became standardized equipment throughout the world.
It was his involvement with rail that led him to Pittsburgh. He founded the Union Switch & Signal Company to design signaling and rail switching devices so that railroads could become more efficient. In his back yard, he tapped into natural gas and invented solutions for its distribution as well.
He built a valve that would convert high pressure gasoline to low pressure gasoline, and upon considering the analogous solution for electricity, decided to invent the transformer. The transformer allowed you to send high current down lines for long distances, where it could be brought back to normal current for use when it reached its final destination.
At the time, electricity was being fed using direct current. Direct current involves sending a continuous stream of electrons down a wire. Think of this like sucking from a straw. Westinghouse supported alternating current, which both pushed and pulled electrons in alternating pulses. To simulate this with your straw, fill up a large glass with water, and suck enough to fill up the straw and your mouth, but don’t swallow or release. Now, push a little out of your mouth, then draw a bit back in. Repeating this process, it you will notice that you are still transferring energy back and forth into the glass, but the water doesn’t have to keep moving. This is more akin to alternating current.
He used this principle to build the Westinghouse Electric Company in 1886. Within 10 years, the superiority of alternating current had been realized and acted upon, and direct current would be used for things like batteries and computers. Building on patents by famous inventor Nikola Tesla, Westinghouse built the Niagra Falls power machinery and many other projects. He became one of the most praised men of his day. He died in 1914
Today, his name is on a bridge, high school, and a park in the Pittsburgh area. Westinghouse typified the Pittsburgh inventor. He saw an opportunity, and through hard work and personal risk, he built something for it. Without Westinghouse, the age of electricity might have been held back for decades, and his innovations continue to move technology (and stop trains) today.
Westinghouse Company: http://www.westinghousenuclear.com/Our_Company/history/george_westinghouse.shtm