He was the son of Ross Winans and Julia De Kay. He married Celeste Revillon in 1847 in Alexandroffsky, Russia. They had four children: George (1849); Ross Revillon (1851-1912); William George (1852-1861); Celeste (1855-1916). Winans's sister (Julia) was married to AMW's step-son (JW's half-brother) George William Whistler.
He was one of the partners of the major locomotive firm Harrison, Winans and Eastwick (organized to handle the construction of the St Petersburg - Moscow railroad). In 1843 he went to Russia to take charge of the mechanical department, contracted to equip the railroad with locomotives and other rolling stock in 5 years, and established the Alexandroffsky Mechanical Works. He returned to the USA in 1851, but was recalled to Russia for a new construction in 1866. Business interests were taken over by the Russian government with the payment of a large bonus in 1868.
He became director of the Baltimore and Ohio railroad, and established a soup station outside his house during the Civil War. He devised with his father a cigar-shaped hull for transatlantic steamers, 1859, and devoted the rest of his life to creating a series of ingenious inventions, including improvements in organs, pianos, ventilation, and plumbing.
He was JW's first patron, and a great collector of works of art. He owned Portrait of Anna Denny (YMSM 4), The Fishwife (YMSM 6), Copy after Boucher's 'Diane au bain' (YMSM 20), Wapping (YMSM 35).
Who Was Who in America, Chicago, 1963, p. 588; Young, Andrew McLaren, Margaret F. MacDonald, Robin Spencer and Hamish Miles, The Paintings of James McNeill Whistler, New Haven and London, 1980; MacDonald, Margaret F., James McNeill Whistler. Drawings, Pastels and Watercolours. A Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven and London, 1995.