Women in blouses and long skirts clock in, then lean over machines, winding wire into large spools. Men use cranes to nudge parts of a massive generator into place.
Over a century ago, these workers, all employees of Westinghouse companies, contributed to the most ambitious, high-tech projects of their day. On a Library of Congress website, their labor — and innovations that changed the way Americans worked and traveled — comes to flickering life.
Conceived as “actuality films” and shot during 1904, these 21 early documentaries were designed to show off Westinghouse’s industrial innovations.
The films were shown in a Westinghouse-sponsored auditorium at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904. Today, you can view them online.
They highlight the operations at factories that were the most modern of their kind. At Westinghouse’s Electric & Manufacturing, Air Brake and other Westinghouse subdivisions, the mostly-female workforce contributed to some of the nation’s most important public works projects. Westinghouse generators helped convert Niagara Falls to electric power and made possible Chicago “L,” the city’s rapid transit system, among other projects.
The website that accompanies the films offers context, such as an article on working conditions — considered the most progressive of their time — and more information on life in Wilmerding, Pa., Westinghouse’s company town.
In 1998, the short movies became part of the National Film Registry. They’re a neat way to compare today’s automated factories with the surprisingly hands-on ones of yore. See for yourself at bit.ly/WestinghouseWorks.