A Tradition of Innovation

From airbrakes to zombies – and everything in between – new ideas from Western Pennsylvania have changed the world. Here, innovators found a culture focused on hard work and supportive of new ideas, with individuals and institutions willing to provide the capital needed to transform ideas to reality.

Union Trust Company building, Pittsburgh, Pa. (c. 1890)Original Source: Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center


Idea People

Innovators found an environment in Western Pennsylvania that welcomed new ideas and that supported their work. Pittsburgh innovators shared the ability to see the world in new or unique ways; and they were willing to fail numerous times while testing a theory or developing an idea. The creativity and problem solving skills of Pittsburgh innovators has changed the world. 

Westinghouse stopper lamp (1893)Original Source: Heinz History Center Museum Collections

The contributions of George Westinghouse are vast and varied. His solutions to the most pressing challenges of the 19th century transformed the way we live and work. Safe and efficient train travel, natural gas replacing coal as a leading fuel, and his system for electricity set the course for the modern world.

Westinghouse Airbrake Company advertisement (1896)Original Source: Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center

His approach to invention was ingenious, yet he praised the work of others and found his most creative solutions through collaboration. Westinghouse valued his employees’ contributions and set new standards for working conditions throughout his many companies. He founded more than 90 companies and applied for more than 361 patents in his lifetime. Our lives continue to be shaped by George Westinghouse’s invention and ingenuity.

Union Trust Company building, Pittsburgh, Pa. (c. 1890)Original Source: Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center

What started off as a private bank begun by Thomas Mellon, greatly expanded with his son Andrew at the helm. Andrew proved to be a shrewd investor and venture capitalist. He provided money to men with new ideas and merged existing companies, creating what came to be known as the “Mellon Companies.” In addition, the Mellon family were involved in local coal company consolidations, mining ventures throughout the country, and the development of streetcar lines and railroads.

Union Trust Company overtook T. Mellon & Sons as the commercial banking arm of the Mellon fortune. Through Union Trust, they controlled much of the business and industry in the region, if not by direct ownership, then through the powerful regional connections of their board of directors. At the height of Union Trust’s influence in 1906, Andrew alone held a position in 40 other firms.

Mary Lou Williams signed portrait (c. 1950)Original Source: Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center

Born in Atlanta, Ga., Mary Lou Williams relocated with her family to Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood at age five. She demonstrated an innate sense of music and by age eight began performing publicly on the piano. This music prodigy joined a band at age 13 and began to travel and play professionally. She married saxophonist Johnny Williams in 1927, two years later they joined the Kansas City based band “The Clouds of Joy.” Mary Lou began composing and arranging music for the group, as well as jazz luminaries such as Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, and fellow Pittsburgher, Earl Hines.

Williams left the band in 1942, eventually settling in New York, as a featured performer at the Café Society. She began to play with and inspire bebop musicians, adding to her talents in swing and the blues. Her weekly radio show exposed her talents and shared her original compositions. After traveling and playing in Europe in the early 1950s, Williams returned to New York. As a woman, in a male dominated field, William’s talent opened doors and inspired artists to take jazz in new directions.

Dr. Thomas Starzl in the operating room (1990)Senator John Heinz History Center

Considered “the father of liver transplantation,” Dr. Thomas Starzl built the largest liver transplant program in the world at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC). Starzl had performed the world’s first liver transplant in 1968 at the University of Colorado. Instrumental in the development of the anti-rejection drug cyclosporine, he was recruited to develop and head UPMC’s liver transplant program. Arriving in Pittsburgh in 1981, he made major advances not just in the operating room, but also in the laboratory.

It was Dr. Starzl who worked to organize the “University of Pittsburgh Air Force,” and Dr. Starzl and his team who identified and developed the anti-rejection drug FK506 that is 50 to 100 times more powerful than cyclosporine. To date, more than 6,000 liver transplants have been performed at UPMC.

Illustration of the “Kelly Converter” (1861-1862)Original Source: Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center

Certain that someone had shared his secrets with Henry Bessemer, William Kelly claimed the revolutionary steelmaking process as his own. Kelly, born and raised in Pittsburgh, experimented with “pneumatic” steelmaking as early as 1847 at his iron works in Tennessee. He claimed Bessemer had stolen his method of injecting air into molten iron to create steel.

In reality, both men received U.S. patents, but a 13-year legal battle ensued. In 1870, Bessemer’s American patent renewal was refused because Kelly was deemed the originator of the innovative, and highly profitable, steelmaking process. It is likely that both men arrived at the idea at about the same time. In an age when iron workers could see the potential of steel, but did not yet have the technology to make it on a large scale, many experimented with the process, working toward the goal of mass producing this metal of the future.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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