Pittsburgh at the forefront of technology inventions and innovation

Pittsburgh at the forefront of technology inventions and innovationWhen asked what is Pittsburgh known for, the popular answers mention steel mills and sports teams. When the question what is Pittsburgh known for is asked in the context of famous inventors and innovative technology, it is interesting to see how Pittsburgh rose to the forefront of technology innovation during the industrial revolution.

As someone who grew up in Western Pennsylvania who studies Geek History, I am proud to share the amazing history of the area as it relates to technology. There are many famous inventors who were involved the development of radio and television that passed through Pittsburgh by way of George Westinghouse and the University of Pittsburgh.

George Westinghouse planted the seed of innovation in Pittsburgh

One of the most famous inventors to call Pittsburgh home was George Westinghouse. A life long geek who loved to tinker in technology, as a young man Westinghouse worked in his father's factory in upstate New York. Westinghouse came to Pittsburgh at the age of 23 in 1868, in search of steel for his patented railcar replacer and railway frog. As an inventor, Westinghouse was deeply interested in making railroads safer. He went on to patent his renowned Westinghouse Airbrake, which led to the creation of The Westinghouse Airbrake Manufacturing Company in 1869.

Westinghouse lived most of his adult life in Pittsburgh. In 1910, George Westinghouse retired and moved back to New York. In 1914, George Westinghouse passed away. He died in a wheelchair. Forever the inventor, Westinghouse was working on an electric wheelchair at the time of his death. Westinghouse had 314 patents of his own inventions, and was in control of over 15,000 patents.

George Westinghouse was a quiet and humble man who did not seek the attention of the media. Westinghouse earned the respect of the employees of the companies he created. A monument in Pittsburgh honoring Westinghouse was paid for by employees of Westinghouse companies. The Dedication Plaque located on the back side of Westinghouse Memorial and Pond in Schenley Park starts with the following sentence, "This memorial unveiled October 6, 1930, in honor of George Westinghouse is an enduring testimonial to the esteem, affection and loyalty of 60,000 employees of the great industrial organizations of which he was the founder.

Many of the Westinghouse companies live on in mergers with other companies. Westinghouse gave the world safer rail transportation, steam turbines, gas lighting and heating, and electricity to the average American's home. Westinghouse planted the seed of innovation and put Pittsburgh on the forefront of technology.

War of Currents goes through Pittsburgh


The War of Currents is the famous business and technology battle between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse over which method should be used to deliver electricity to American homes.

During the 1880s Thomas Edison began to construct electrical generating stations based on DC (direct current) power. Westinghouse believed that AC was a better method of power distribution, and believed that electric company founded by his rival Thomas Edison was structurally flawed in its beliefs of using DC power.  The concept of AC power distribution was not a new concept for Westinghouse, because he was also an inventor in the natural gas industry.  Westinghouse became interested in the inventions of European Inventors Gaulard and Gibbs and purchased the American rights to their patents for AC current transformers in 1885. Westinghouse and his staff worked on improving and redesigning the transformers, and the Westinghouse Electric Company was started in 1886.

Westinghouse was impressed with the work of Nikola Tesla and approached him about joining forces. Westinghouse brought the legendary master of lightning to Pittsburgh and purchased Tesla's alternating current patents on the electric systems and paid Tesla to work with him until they were fully implemented.

Everyone talks about the great inventor Thomas Edison, calling him the Wizard of Menlo Park. One of the biggest defeats in the career of Edison was the War of Currents, where Edison lost to George Westinghouse.

Radio Pioneer Fessenden connections to Westinghouse and Pitt

Although Canada takes credit for being the birth place of radio pioneer Reginald Fessenden, he would cross paths with George Westinghouse during the War of Currents, and eventually come to Pittsburgh. Because Edison lost the bid to light the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, he blocked George Westinghouse from using any light bulbs designed by Edison. Fessenden's invention of silicon-iron and nickel-iron alloys for the lead-in wires in electric light bulbs and the methods for sealing wires in a glass envelope gave Westinghouse an alternative to the Edison bulbs and allowed Westinghouse to fulfill his commitment.

George Westinghouse lured Fessenden to the University in Pittsburgh because Westinghouse had already seen the engineer's genius and wanted him close at hand.  Westinghouse recruited Fessenden to become the first head of electrical engineering at Western University of Pennsylvania, later named the University of Pittsburgh. Fessenden was chair of Pitt's electrical engineering department from 1893 to 1900. After seven years at the University of Pittsburgh, ending in the spring of 1900, Fessenden moved on and continued his experiments.

Fessenden began experimenting with wireless telephones in 1898. Fessenden used Pittsburgh as his test bed for wireless telephones setting up a wireless communication system functioning between Pittsburgh and Allegheny City in 1899, and achieved the first wireless voice transmission in December 1900.

Fessenden successfully made the first long-distance transmission on Christmas Eve 1906. The broadcast was advertised three days in advance of Christmas, telegraphed to ships of the U.S Navy and the United Fruit Co., which were equipped with apparatus intended to receive the broadcast. Fessenden broadcast his voice and his violin performance over the Atlantic, startling and mystifying sailors who typically were listening for dots and dashes and the occasional seagull, and heard "O Holy Night" instead.

When asking who is the "Father of Radio," you may start a debate over whether Tesla or Marconi should be given that honor. The name of Reginald Fessenden deserves mention as well.

Radio broadcasting takes off in Pittsburgh

Because of Fessenden's Pittsburgh connections Western Pennsylvania became the incubator of modern radio. Radio began as a one-to-one method of communication.

Westinghouse engineer Dr. Frank Conrad was a Pittsburgh area ham operator. Conrad played records for his friends over the airwaves. An executive at Westinghouse heard about Conrad's broadcast and asked Conrad to help set up a regularly transmitting radio station in Pittsburgh.  On November 2, 1920, Westinghouse's KDKA began regular broadcasts. They chose that date because it was election day, and the power of radio was proven when people could hear the results of the presidential race before they read about it in the newspaper.

Television Pioneer Zworykin works for Westinghouse earns degree at Pitt

Just as Fessenden is one of many people considered the "Father of Radio,"  another famous inventor with a Pittsburgh connection is considered by some as the "Father of Television."

As a young engineering student, Vladimir Zworykin worked for Russian scientist and inventor Boris Rosing and assisted him in some of his laboratory work. Zworykin moved to the United States following the Russian Revolution in 1919. When he arrived in America, Zworykin worked at Westinghouse Electric Corporation in Pittsburgh.

Zworykin had an opportunity to engage in television experiments at Westinghouse. His work on television resulted  in two patent applications. The first, entitled "Television Systems", was filed on December 29, 1923, and was followed by a second application in 1925 that was awarded in 1928.

Zworykin applied to the physics department at the University of Pittsburgh in 1924. Due to his previous credited work Zworykin received his Ph.D. only two years later upon completion of his dissertation on the improvement of photoelectric cells.

In the 1920s David Sarnoff of RCA had the vision of developing television. In 1929 Sarnoff, a Russian American like Vladimir Zworykin, recruited him to develop television for RCA.  Sarnoff put Zworykin in charge of television development for RCA at their laboratories in Camden, New Jersey..

With the invention of radio and television it is difficult to give one person credit as the sole inventor, but in the case of Fesseden and Zworkyin they both played a key role in the inventions of the technology.  The careers of both Fesseden and Zworkyin included connections to Westinghouse and the University of Pittsburgh. 

When Pittsburg became Pittsburgh

Here's a geeky history question I came up with while I was reading a book from 1909 published by George Westinghouse. I noticed that every reference to Pittsburgh is spelled "Pittsburg." I wondered, is that just something done by George? Was there ever a time when it was acceptable to spell Pittsburgh as Pittsburg?

I found out that in 1890, the United States Board on Geographic Names decided that the final h was to be dropped in the names of all cities and towns ending in burgh. There was a period between 1890 and 1911 when the "h" was dropped because the United States Post Office Department, following the United State Board of Geographic Names, had dropped the final "h." 

Before Silicon Valley created computers Geek History was made in Pittsburgh.
 

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