Appellate Judge James A. Stewart can be sure...it's about George Westinghouse.
"Not a day goes by that we don't use something pioneered by George Westinghouse. He is the forgotten role model that our country needs today to teach future generations of Americans that hard work and kindness pay off."
The slogan, "You can be sure…if it's Westinghouse," was a familiar one to Americans in the 1950s, as spots on Studio One and Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse touted its electric stoves, dishwashers, washers and dryers, refrigerators, and toasters. Since then, pieces of Westinghouse have been absorbed into other companies, and you could go years without hearing the name Westinghouse (although the Westinghouse Air-Brake Company, a related business, continues today).
My grandfather retired from Westinghouse Electric Co. in the late 1960s while the company was still in its heyday. Thus, like many people in the Pittsburgh area, the name means something to me when I see it on a bridge or memorial.
Westinghouse takes a look at the man who started Westinghouse Electric and a number of other companies: George Westinghouse.
Facts of the Case
George Westinghouse wasn't a good student, but he learned a lot by doing, building engines in his dad's machine shop in Schenectady, N.Y. The president of Union College, where Westinghouse briefly studied, advised him to drop out to pursue this avenue: "You have a genius for invention. Cultivate it, and you will become a great engineer." Westinghouse did, backing it up with military experience during the Civil War. The combination made him a skilled manager and businessman.
In 1865, at age 19, Westinghouse got his first patent for a rotary steam engine; he'd been working on the project since he was 15. His first big invention, however, was the air brake, which allowed trains to brake more quickly and more safely.
The 1893 World's Fair in Chicago proved to be a turning point in Westinghouse's life, since he beat Thomas Edison for the contract to light the event and made his name a household word. That continued even after he was forced out of his electric company in 1907.
You might not have wanted George Westinghouse for a neighbor—he prospected for natural gas in his own backyard, and built an alternating-current power plant and a test railroad track there as well. Even so, you'll have to admit he was a fascinating man. He was, after all, the business owner who came up with the idea of the weekend, something that even people who think this electricity stuff was a mistake will appreciate.
Westinghouse might seem mundane in the first few minutes, as it opens with a montage of fast-moving Westinghouse images and narration about what a wonderful guy George Westinghouse was. However, the facts of Westinghouse's life speak for themselves, and the documentary wisely lets them, backing up the biography with vintage photos and film footage. The choices made here help to explain those inventions, particularly with the two forms of current involved in the electricity battle between Edison and Westinghouse, to those of us without Westinghouse's keen scientific mind.
The portrait presented is of a man who enjoyed invention and business, his many projects fueled by the sheer thrill of progress. Even after losing the crown jewel of his empire, he continued to invent and take an active role in the remaining air brake company.
Although Westinghouse concentrates on the man, not the company, the stylish appliances you associate with the Westinghouse name turn up late in the documentary. You will hear about a musical clothes dryer, a turkey roaster that has lasted since the late 1930s and still gets used every Thanksgiving, and Elektro the Moto-Man, a famous World's Fair novelty.
The picture quality, of course, is variable, since the documentary relies on a lot of faded and scratchy old footage. There's some flaring in woodcuts and a couple of the talking heads scenes. The narration and the old-time background music come through without problems. If you check out the subtitles, which I did while listening to the commentary, you'll find that they are hard to read at times.
Writer/director Mark Bussler and George Westinghouse Museum executive director Edward J. Reis provide a conversational commentary with a few additional facts about Westinghouse and his legacy. Reis also talks about his coffee mug collection and an antique waffle iron he still uses, and the words that Westinghouse Electric brought into the language—"broadcasting," for example—are discussed.
Two bonus features expand on the material in the documentary. I was impressed with "Outtakes, Interviews and Unused Footage from Westinghouse." Rather than merely showing longer versions of what you've seen already, it presents new, interesting subjects: a refrigerator demonstration, Nimatron the "mechanical brain," and Bertha Lamme, the first female electrical engineer, are all covered here. "William H. Terbo Discusses Nikola Tesla" features the grandnephew of the scientist in an extended interview. These features run close to 40 minutes.
Two old-fashioned industrial films—"The Westinghouse Time Capsule," which shows a New York World's Fair exhibit scheduled to be opened in 6939 A.D., and "Type-V Disconnecting Switches," which shows the benefits of the product (which has something to do with high-voltage towers and machinery)—provide a look at what made Westinghouse a household word. Interesting, but it would help if there were some context—at least the dates the films were made or first shown. Overall, though, the bonus package is impressive.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
We got a glimpse of the Baconer and the Dog-O-Matic (a hot dog maker). Couldn't we see them in action? They wouldn't have fit into the main film, but I suspect a lot of viewers would want to see more on the Westinghouse appliances and gadgets. Just one more bonus feature could have made this the perfect DVD package.
Westinghouse will satisfy anyone wanting to learn about the life of George Westinghouse—and does the job well enough to pique your interest even if you're not. However, it doesn't devote much time to the 1950s consumer appliance heyday of Westinghouse, a subject that could spawn its own documentary.
Not guilty, but let's get more on the Dog-O-Matic into the next edition.
Give us your feedback!
Scales of Justice
• Commentary with Writer/Director Mark Bussler and Edward J. Reis, Executive Director of the George Westinghouse Museum
Review content copyright © 2008 James A. Stewart; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.