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The little train robbery / Thomas A. Edison, Inc. 1905.

[Detail] Panorama exterior Westinghouse works, 1904.

Collection Overview

Inside An American Factory: Westinghouse Works, 1904 contains 21 "actuality films" (films taken of real events as they happen) showing various views of Westinghouse companies. The films were intended to showcase the company's operations and feature the Westinghouse Air Brake Company, the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company, and the Westinghouse Machine Company. The films include exterior and interior shots of the factories and of male and female factory workers on the job.

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Special Features

These online exhibits provide context and additional information about this collection.

Historical Eras

These historical era(s) are best represented in the collection although they may not be all-encompassing.

  • Development of the Industrial United States, 1876-1915
  • Emergence of Modern America, 1890-1930

Related Collections and Exhibits

These collections and exhibits contain thematically-related primary and secondary sources. Also browse the Collection Finder for more related material on the American Memory Web site.

Other Resources

Recommended additional sources of information.

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Search Tips

Specific guidance for searching this collection

Each of the films in the collection has a bibliographic record. Along with other information, each bibliographic record includes a comprehensive summary prepared by the Biograph Company describing the footage in the film. You may want to review these summaries before accessing a film, since the large file sizes may take a few minutes to download.

You can search by keyword, or you can browse the Subject Index or a List of Film Titles

For help with general search strategies, see Finding Items in American Memory.


U.S. History

Inside An American Factory: Westinghouse Works, 1904 contains some of the earliest motion pictures made of industrial work in the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century. The films feature three of the Westinghouse companies and were intended to publicize the workings of their factories, which were considered to be among the most modern and progressive of the period. The Special Presentation " The Westinghouse World: The Companies, the People, and the Places" gives considerable background information about the history of these three companies, the working conditions, the types of projects Westinghouse worked on, and a brief biography of founder George Westinghouse.

The collection features actuality footage (films taken of real events as they happen) of workers performing their various duties in the Air Brake, Machine, and Electric and Manufacturing Companies.

1) Industrial working conditions

The beginning of the twentieth century was a period of industrial expansion in the United States and the Westinghouse factories were considered to be among the most modern factories of their time with the best working conditions. This collection consists almost entirely of films of workers performing their duties in the Westinghouse factories, giving valuable information about work procedures and safety precautions, or lack thereof, at this time.

Search on factories to see how work duties became specialized in industry. See the manual work of Assembling a Generator, the repetitious work of women winding coils for machinery in Coil Winding Machines, or the testing of machinery performance in Testing a Rotary.


Assembling a Generator, Westinghouse Works, American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, 1904

2) Role of women in factories

The collection shows the increased role women played in factory work at the turn of the century. Most women performed repetitious assembly tasks, although a few female supervisors can also be glimpsed in some films.

Search on women workers for examples of the work performed by women at the Electric and Manufacturing Company. One example, Girls Taking Time Checks, shows a long procession of women checking in for work, giving some indication of how many were employed at this particular factory and of the uniformity of their appearance.

Girls taking time checks

Girls taking time checks, Westinghouse Works, American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, 1904


3) Role of technology and inventions at the beginning of twentieth century

The Westinghouse companies had come into their prime at the beginning of the twentieth century when technological innovations and industry combined to create many advances in electricity, transportation, appliances, and other elements now considered to be part of modern life. The Electric and Manufacturing Company contributed to many high-profile electrical projects, such as the installation of the New York subway system, and products from the Air Brake Company made for improved performance and increased speed on the nation's railways.

Search on words such as generators, turbines, and air-brake to see the manufacture of items that contributed to the performance of electrical systems nationwide and to rapid transportation systems in New York and Chicago.

The films themselves were a result of the invention of the Cooper Hewitt Mercury Vapor Lamp (from a Westinghouse company), which made filming inside a factory possible. This can be most clearly seen in panoramic films such as Panoramic View Aisle B, in which a lamp and camera move over a machinery aisle on an overhead crane, illuminating the machinery and filming it as they go past.

4) Use of motion pictures to advertise companies and their products

The Westinghouse films were produced by the Biograph Company in 1904 and shown to crowds of people in the Westinghouse exhibit at the St. Louis Exposition that year. It is likely that the films were created expressly for this purpose to showcase the companies' operations.

Go to About the Collection for more information on how these films were made and exhibited.

5) The rise of the "company town"

Industrialism increased the control of companies over workers' lives, leading in some instances to what was referred to as a "company town." Wilmerding, Pennsylvania, was such a place, since the Westinghouse Air Brake Company employed so many of its inhabitants. The company built low-cost housing for its workers and even provided Y.M.C.A. facilities, but any periodic declines in company profits also meant a decline in the workers' standard of living.

Go to "Life in Wilmerding, 'The Air Brake City'," a newspaper article from 1904, to read more about life in a company town. View Panorama Exterior Westinghouse Works to see the Westinghouse factories and housing along the railway line.


Critical Thinking

1) Chronological Thinking

This collection portrays the Westinghouse Works in 1904, although a Special Presentation, "Westinghouse Works: Timeline," gives a longer history of the Westinghouse companies and of their founder, George Westinghouse. Students can use the films in this collection to examine how industrial work may have changed from 1904 to today. They may answer questions such as:

  • How are the workers dressed?
  • What tasks are they performing?
  • Are any safety precautions being observed?
  • How diverse are the workers?
  • What changes can they see in factory work today?

Search on Westinghouse among American Memory collections for photographs of Westinghouse products over subsequent years, including refrigerators and electric ranges.

Students can investigate other sources at local libraries and on the World Wide Web to learn how the Westinghouse companies have changed over the years and what products they have manufactured. How have these products contributed to the modern lifestyle?

2) Comprehension

After viewing films of women at work, such as Coil Winding Section E, students can read "Working Conditions at the Westinghouse Works" in the Special Presentation and do further research on their own into the role of women in industrial work at the turn-of-the-century. They may answer questions such as:

  • What are the women doing in these films? How are they dressed?
  • What types of tasks did women typically perform at this period in history?
  • What rights did they have in their jobs?
  • How do the working conditions compare with the conditions of other factories of that time? How do they compare with today's standards?

Students can read about the working conditions again and view some of the films with an eye for safety and working conditions. Some examples might be Steam Hammer or Welding the Big Ring. They may answer questions such as:

  • What kinds of safety precautions, if any, are apparent in these films?
  • How did these films illustrate a "progressive" and "modern" factory environment for the time?
Casting a guide box

Casting a Guide Box, Westinghouse Works, American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, 1904


3) Analysis and interpretation

Students can use this collection and the Special Presentation "The Westinghouse World: The Companies, the People, and the Places" as a starting point to analyze the issue of unionism in American factories. The Westinghouse factories of 1904 refused to allow unions, but did offer some benefits of their own to workers. Students can analyze the role of unionism in the American workplace and how the Westinghouse example fits into that history. They can compare and contrast the Westinghouse working environment and its lack of a union with other workplaces of the time (e.g., Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, Matawan Coal Mines).

These films were used as promotional tools for the Westinghouse companies at the St. Louis Exposition in 1904. Students may analyze the films and answer:

  • How effective were these films in "selling" a good image of the Westinghouse companies?
  • How do modern companies advertise themselves?
  • How truthful are these films or other company advertisements?

4) Historical issue analysis and decision making

George Westinghouse was an ardent supporter of alternating current (AC) electricity, while Thomas Edison, his competitor in the electrical business, fiercely opposed it in favor of direct current (DC) electricity. Students can research this battle, and stage their own debates on the topic, putting themselves into the minds of Westinghouse and Edison at this time. They might address issues such as:

  • Why was Edison opposed to alternating current?
  • What steps did Edison take to threaten Westinghouse's alternating current inventions?
  • What steps did Westinghouse take to prove the stability of alternating current?

5) Research

Students can use the Westinghouse collection in tandem with other American Memory collections such as Inventing Entertainment: The Early Motion Pictures and Sound Recordings of the Edison Companies and the Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers to research inventors and the development of technology at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. Students can research how Westinghouse, Edison, and Bell competed with each other directly through their companies and products.


Arts & Humanities

1) Biographies and Obituaries

The Westinghouse Works were largely the product of one inventor-industrialist, George Westinghouse. Students can read other biographies of George Westinghouse in addition to "About George Westinghouse" found in the Special Presentation and write an obituary for him that accurately represents his life and achievements.

2) Creative Writing

There are a number of creative writing activities that could work with these materials. Students can read "Life in Wilmerding, 'The Air Brake City'," watch some of the films, and compose their own diary of what a typical week for a factory employee would have been like. They could write a poem or comedy routine about alternating current (AC) versus direct current (DC).

3) Expository Writing

Westinghouse contributed greatly to the use of electrical products and to the modernization of transportation. Students can research and write a report on the history of electricity or the history of railway transportation in the United States. How have technological advancements in these areas contributed to society?

4) Journalistic Writing

Students can pretend they are reporters for a newspaper in 1904 and write an article on the battle between Edison and Westinghouse over direct current versus alternating current. They can research the topic in books to find quotations from Edison and Westinghouse and other information to use in the article.