Friday, March 15, 2013

Seeking Shipstones

Only a few may have noted a NYT piece last week on the esteemed Intel Talent Competition: A laboratory grows for young scientists.

Some, or most anyone over 30 may remember this was the WESTINGHOUSE Science competition from when it first began in 1942. Why is it not called Westinghouse any longer?  Because of a spasm of corporate hubris a fellow named Michael Jordan eviscerated all that was once Westinghouse. I will summarize thusly:  Finance guy takes over Westinghouse and didn't feel the love running an 'old' industrial conglomerate. (for Pittsburgh, really old)  He decided media was much more entertaining so Westinghouse bought CBS, and then became CBS; quickly shedding much of the core industrial divisions in order to pay for the pathological plan. If you want the longer version read Steve Massey's epic: Who killed Westinghouse? Required reading and really as important to Pittsburgh's economic history than the broader demise of the heavy industry. In the end, why would the new Westinghouse, otherwise known as CBS, care about such things as a science contest for kids?

What Pittsburgh lost was much of the research and development that once housed here by Westinghouse.  And no, I am not forgetting the pieces that have remained and their importance.  Westinghouse as named today is actually the remnant of the nuclear division as originally sold to British Nuclear Fuels Limited. It along with parts of the power generation division sold to Siemens; Wabtec the long legacy of the the Westinghouse air brake and other legacies all still here.  All significant, but even together do not make up for all that was lost. The very fact those pieces remain successful just calls into question the rush to sell them off in such a piecemeal way.

Why irksome?  In this day when more and more emphasis is placed on what is broadly called Technology Based Economic Development (TBED), the concentration of research that Westinghouse once.  Looking back through history, Westinghouse was one of the few companies that sustainably generated spinoffs and new firms here. Examples go from electric water heaters to the most advanced pulmonary ventilators. For a region that had long lagged in entrepreneurial activity, if you took out what Wesinghouse was responsible for, there would not have been not much left over the course of the 20th century.

Then there is the human capital that was lost.  The big Westinghouse R&D operation had some lasting impacts that go beyond the technology. You need large operations to really support entry level hiring en masse for young engineers. Smaller and even mid-sized firms tech firms can't really afford the costs of hiring whole classes of entry level folks.  I would argue that since W went away, there has not been any replacement for that in the local labor ecosystem.  It also was a sponsor for many of the few international immigrants the region was able to attract for decades prior to its end.  The region would be a very different place today if those folks had gone elsewhere.

All comes to mind because today because I see this in the Christian Science Monitor:. ...Why Batteries Matter. I just bet that if W was left intact in Pittsburgh, it would be at the cutting edge of that research.  Luckily, I do believe some of that research remains here.  My version of why batteries matter is actually a comment from Heinlein.  In reality there is no lack of energy on planet earth.  There is a lack of energy where it is needed, when it is needed.

Shipstone?  Try Google.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

In addition, Westinghouse hires A LOT of entry level engineers from local colleges and universities. Keeping them, even if in Cranberry, was still a huge win for the region, and looks better every year despite the dip in nuclear demand.

Friday, March 15, 2013 4:26:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

yes, Jordan was the Prince of Darkness, but Westinghouse began it's exodus from the region long before he took over. By the late 60's, various groups were moving to the south (right to work states), SC, TX. Which eventually begat moves still further south to Mexico. A lot like the steel industry in the 80's.

Sunday, March 24, 2013 10:12:00 AM  

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