Schenectady County

GE scientist’s lab headed for museum

Thurston Sack is picking up another piece of local history for his Edison Exploratorium, courtesy of
Vincent Versaci, left, listens to Richard Breault talk about the old labratory they are standing in at Versaci’s Schenectady house Friday.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Vincent Versaci, left, listens to Richard Breault talk about the old labratory they are standing in at Versaci’s Schenectady house Friday.

Thurston Sack is picking up another piece of local history for his Edison Exploratorium, courtesy of Schenectady City Court Judge Vincent Versaci.

Last year, Versaci bought a GE Realty Plot house built in 1909. The house had been purchased in 1917 by Chester W. Rice, who lived there until his death in 1951. Rice was a scientist for General Electric Co., who played significant roles in the development of sonar, radar and the electronic loudspeaker. He had a 1931 addition built to the house in which GE installed a laboratory for his use. The wood paneling, work benches, shelves and cupboards are still there.

In December, Versaci contacted Sack and told him he was prepared to donate them. Sack intends to remove them for eventual public display.

For the time being, Sack will store the materials at the Exploratorium’s current site on Broadway downtown. He hopes eventually to develop the Erie Crossing building on Erie Boulevard near the GE plant, which he said is the last surviving building used by Thomas Edison in Schenectady, and was the city’s first electric power plant.

Sack is far short of raising the funds needed to develop Erie Crossing but is confident he will raise enough to move the Rice artifacts out of Versaci’s home. That should cost less than $25,000 initially, he said, but there will be additional costs to frame the room properly for storage.

In a 1983 book about the GE Plot, “An Enclave of Elegance,” Bruce Maston wrote about the lab, “which included a cement pier sunk 18 feet into bedrock to insulate his sensitive equipment from the buffeting of trolleys.” The pier is still there, next to what Sack and Dr. Richard Breault said was part of a device to convert alternating current to direct current.

Breault sold the house to Versaci last year, having bought it in 1968 from the estate of Rice’s widow. The Rice family donated the scientific equipment to the Berkshire School, Breault said.

Sack said that Rice was a late riser who often worked into the night. The room is well lighted with big windows, and the original room-darkening shades also remain.

“He used to do a lot of work with optics,” Breault said.

The 12-by-24-foot room is next to the garage, and after the original woodwork is removed, the Versaci family aims to use it as a laundry and mud room.

Rice’s father was GE President Edwin W. Rice, but according to Maston that’s probably not the reason GE built the home lab. Other GE scientists such as Charles Steinmetz and Ernst Alexanderson also worked at home nearby, at a time when research equipment was much simpler.

“The term ‘inventor’ had more currency in those times,” Maston wrote. “It was not considered odd for a scientist to putter in solitude.”

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