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Meet Me in St. Louis: The Westinghouse Works at the World’s Fair

This post was written by 2021 Junior Fellow Hannah Pfeifer and is the second post about Westinghouse, following American Dynamo: The Life of George Westinghouse.

The 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair glowed. It shone bright against the darkening sky; the venue lit with a white light accompanied by a soft hum as the alternating current flowed through the new electric streetlamps that George Westinghouse was using to illuminate the entire exposition. Although lighting both the fair’s buildings and parks ensured his fame as an American industrialist, Westinghouse wanted to show visitors just how impressive his companies were. Before the fair, known officially as the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, Westinghouse commissioned Billy Bitzer’s American Mutoscope & Biograph Company to produce The Westinghouse Works, an industrial film series about the Westinghouse factory complex in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. These silent films were then presented to the exposition audience, demonstrating the production power and innovation Westinghouse companies contributed to the American Second Industrial Revolution.

George Westinghouse (1846-1914) was born into a family of tool manufacturers, which gave him the opportunity to develop a passion for industrial design and engineering that continued for the rest of his life. Westinghouse made his name in 1869 with his fail-safe air brake patent and the first Westinghouse factory, the Westinghouse Air Brake Company. Eventually, Westinghouse had over 12 factories that manufactured his patented machine parts. Most parts were made for rail brakes, natural gas production, water power, and alternating current electricity, which Nikola Tesla developed under the Westinghouse name. By the exposition in 1904, Westinghouse was an indispensable industrial entrepreneur, employing thousands at factories around the world.

George Westinghouse, half-length portrait, facing front

George Westinghouse, between 1900 and 1914. Joseph G. Gessford, photographer.

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania was the Westinghouse company hub. East Pittsburgh was home to the Westinghouse Works, made up of the Westinghouse Air Brake Company, the Westinghouse Machine Company, and the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company.  The Westinghouse company town, built specifically to house its employees, was located in nearby Wilmerding, PA. These three factories became the focus of the Westinghouse Works films.

View of the city with the plant in the center in the distance.

Plant of the Westinghouse Air Brake Co., Wilmerding, Pa. c. 1905. Photo: Detroit Publishing Co. Detroit Publishing Company photograph collection, Library of Congress.

The twenty-one Westinghouse Works films held by the Library of Congress are remarkable industrial-age artifacts, because they are early examples of actuality or industrial films. Actuality films are quasi-documentaries intended to depict everyday life and work. The actuality film is related to industrial films because industrial films show the movements of businesses, factories, and their workers, although they cannot be referred to as documentaries in the purest sense, since they are commissioned by the business owners themselves. Gilded Age industrialists, like George Westinghouse, used actuality and industrial films to build their public image and prove their power to the public and potential investors.

The Westinghouse Works films also mark the first time mercury vapor lamps invented by Peter Cooper Hewitt were used as a lighting source for motion pictures. Westinghouse backed Cooper Hewitt, funding Cooper Hewitt’s new mercury-based lamp, while he and Tesla fought against Thomas Edison’s dangerous direct current electricity. Cooper Hewitt’s lamps produced a vibrant green light which was unappealing in-person but adequate for lighting photography studios, film sets, and factories where the color of lighting mattered less. It is intriguing to think that the hardworking men and women in the Westinghouse Works films may actually be bathed in a greenish-blue hue we cannot see in the black-and-white film. For Westinghouse, the upcoming exposition was an opportunity to prove the successes of the lamps and of his manufacturing empire to an audience of colleagues, potential investors, and visitors who likely relied on Westinghouse products every day.

Held to celebrate the centennial of Thomas Jefferson’s 1804 Louisiana Purchase, the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair was the perfect place for George Westinghouse to demonstrate his companies’ dominance and specifically, the skills of the 9,000 Pittsburghers who worked in his factories. Each film shows an aspect of factory life. Everyday tasks, such as women making electromagnetic coils and men forging a turbine ring with sledgehammers, are seen next to exterior footage of the East Pittsburgh manufacturing complex. Viewers watch as women take their time cards and then see men hold molten metal in place while a steam hammer pounds it from above. The films reveal the skill required by factory workers and supervisors to ensure safety in what was a mundane, yet dangerous, space.

The Westinghouse Works films also reveal the factory’s hierarchy. Devoid of sound and color, the films’ focus becomes the people: the workers and the supervisors. In one film, women in dresses stand in long rows, repetitively winding coils for Westinghouse motors and generators, while being supervised by a man and a woman who help as needed. A young boy walks through the scene, having his own role separate from the older workers. Other reels show men engaged in both hard labor, such as forging steel rings, and specialized engineering work, such as testing generators before they are sent to buyers. The less physically-demanding the job, the more formal the employee’s clothing. Supervisors wear three-piece suits which separate them from the machinists clad in overalls and jumpsuits, their only protection from inevitable grease stains.

A final takeaway from the Westinghouse Works films is exactly what George Westinghouse hoped his audience would realize: that the Westinghouse companies’ influence, the variety of their products, the abilities of their workers, and the genius of Westinghouse himself were modern American marvels. The films tell the story of an industrial wonderland, well-run and productive. Westinghouse products were featured in at least five exhibits at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, so visitors could see the manufacturing process in the Westinghouse Works films before viewing the final products in real life.  They encouraged exposition visitors to support Westinghouse industries, which many did perhaps unknowingly even before the films. As their train left the fair’s Wabash Station and the glow of electric streetlamps faded in the distance, perhaps these same visitors silently thanked Westinghouse for his fantastic inventions and for ensuring a safe ride home.

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