By KAREN C. LUND
Users of the Library's American Memory online collections can learn a great deal about America's industrial might at the turn of the century through motion pictures of the Westinghouse Works.
The films were produced by the American Mutoscope and Biograph Co. in 1904 and were photographed by renowned early motion picture cameraman G.W. (Billy) Bitzer. They show numerous views of the Westinghouse companies located east of Pittsburgh in Wilmerding and East Pittsburgh, namely the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Co., the Westinghouse Air Brake Co. and the Westinghouse Machine Co. The films feature the companies' operations and were apparently made as part of the Westinghouse exhibits at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis in 1904. Catalogs from the American Mutoscope and Biograph Co. indicate that at least 29 films were made of the Westinghouse Works, of which the Library has 21.
The films were the first to use successfully the Cooper Hewitt Mercury Vapor Lamp, which was manufactured by the Cooper Hewitt Electric Co., a Westinghouse company in New York. This innovation made possible the lighting of many interior scenes inside the factories.
The films were made when the Westinghouse enterprise had grown to include many companies in the United States and abroad, indeed, when the Westinghouse Works could arguably be said to be at its peak. The companies were working on high-profile projects and production was high and working conditions were considered to be progressive and fair.
The Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Co., for example, provided the generator apparatus for the subway and the elevated railways in New York and the South Side Elevated Railroad in Chicago. The company also provided the equipment for the conversion of the Niagara Falls into electrical power and generators for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition.
Organized in 1886 with a force of 200 men, the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Co. had grown by 1904 to include 9,000 workers at the main plant and 3,000 additional employees at branch factories. It became the largest of the Westinghouse companies and was thought to be the largest and most modern workshop in the world at the time the American Mutoscope and Biograph Co. filmed its operations. The main function of the company, according to promotional literature of 1905, was to develop and produce "apparatus for the generation, transmission and application of alternating current electricity."
The motion pictures show scenes from the plant in East Pittsburgh. The total floor space was more than 2 million square feet. Scenes of long aisles with large machines in various stages of construction can be seen in these films. Different steps in the construction of generators are exhibited by male and female workers. Traveling cranes with capacities ranging from 30 to 50 tons each loom overhead, carrying heavy equipment, and are most probably where the motion picture cameras and lights were mounted for the filming of the long aisles.
Long aisle shots are also available of the Westinghouse Machine Co., along with scenes of men assembling and testing turbine engines. Views of foundry work that the company performed in Trafford City are also shown.
Organized in 1881, the Westinghouse Machine Co. was devoted primarily to the manufacture of gas and steam engines, turbines and mechanical stokers. The main works were in East Pittsburgh, and the company employed approximately 3,500 men by 1905. The uses of the equipment this company manufactured were varied: gas engines were used to power interurban railways and fire service pumping stations, while steam engines were used frequently by the railway industry.
The earliest of the Westinghouse companies, the Westinghouse Air Brake Co., was formed to manufacture one of George Westinghouse's best-known inventions in 1869. The air brake had revolutionized the railroad industry, making braking a safer venture and thus permitting trains to travel at higher speeds. By 1889 the company had moved to Wilmerding to a plant comprising more than 9 acres of floor space. By 1905 approximately 3,000 workers were employed there making various types of air and automatic brakes for the railway industry. Wilmerding became very much a "company town" with its fortunes rising and falling with that of the Air Brake Co. The company even built houses for its employees and buildings for town activities.
The companies that made up the Westinghouse Works prided themselves on being progressive and modern in their working conditions. The Air Brake Co., for example, was one of the first companies to institute the nine-hour workday, the 55-hour workweek and a half-day holiday on Saturday afternoons. The company also provided housing for many of its employees at affordable cost. The company set up courses and activities for its employees and even offered cash awards for beautification of the town. The Air Brake Co. also set up its own relief department in 1903, the intent being to ensure an income for employees who might become ill or injured or to pay their beneficiaries in the event of death.
In a similar fashion, the Electric and Manufacturing Co. prided itself on the sanitary condition of its shop, washrooms, toilet rooms and wells of drinking water for employee use. Recreational rooms, clubs and a library were also established for the workers. Several of the films also show the large number of female workers employed by the company in various types of assembly jobs.
By promoting various social welfare policies and good working conditions, it was hoped by the Westinghouse companies that they could lower the worker attrition rate, attract a better type of employee and keep the unions out of their factories. This preemptive action failed with the rise of unionism in the United States. Even the Westinghouse companies, with their progressive working conditions, had labor problems that led to occasional strikes opposed by management.
The various Westinghouse companies were the product of the mechanical inventiveness and the business acumen of George Westinghouse. He influenced the growth of railroads through his inventions and his promotion of the use of electricity for power and transportation. As a manager, his effect on industrial history is considerable, having formed and directed more than 60 companies to market his and others' inventions during his lifetime.
At the turn of the century, the various Westinghouse companies were worth about $120 million and employed approximately 50,000 workers. The financial panic of 1907 caused George Westinghouse to lose control of the companies he had founded and, by 1911, he had severed all ties to them. Spending much of his later life in public service, Westinghouse died on March 12, 1914. His last of 361 patents was received in 1918, four years after his death.
The motion pictures taken of the Westinghouse Works are available online with photographs of the companies taken from promotional literature published at the time. Short essays offer background information about the history of the companies and George Westinghouse, and an excerpt from The Wilmerding News in 1904 offers a view of what life was like in Wilmerding, the home of the Air Brake Co. The motion pictures are from the Library's well-known Paper Print Collection, films that were deposited for copyright as positive paper prints, rather than on celluloid rolls. They were recently converted to 35mm prints, which were copied to Betacam sp videotape and were digitized into two formats, MPEG and Quicktime, which offers a choice to the viewer.
Karen C. Lund works for the National Digital Library (NDL) Program in the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division (MBRS). She worked on this project with Gene DeAnna, Hussein Hassan and Judi Hoffman, also of MBRS, and Marc Dudley and Glenn Ricci of the NDL Program.