If Julia Kirk Blackwelder learned anything in her 10 years of research for her new book, “Electric City: General Electric in Schenectady,” it’s that great scientists don’t necessarily make great businessmen.
“The genius at work in Schenectady was the matching of a managerial class with the technical class,” said Blackwelder, a Scotia native and Ballston Spa resident who has returned to the Capital Region after spending her professional career teaching history at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte and Texas A&M University.
“It was the marrying of the people with the managerial know-how to the people with the technical know-how that helped create GE. That’s how the company succeeded. There are no presumed scientific geniuses who make good businessmen.”
Published by Texas A&M University Press, “Electric City” is Blackwelder’s fourth book, and explores the history of General Electric, from the company’s creation in 1892 up to its decline in the city of Schenectady in the 1970s and ’80s. Blackwelder’s focus is the company’s success at creating a culture centered on the social good of technology and the virtues of the people who produced it.
“My fascination with the company is how it got a hold on the people who worked there,” she said. “It amazed me that it was able to mold a variety of people from different stations within the company and have them all work toward a common goal. The idea that the managers and the technical men were able to connect and bind themselves with people of all ranks in the company was a powerful link between these men. They thought and they felt like they all shared this culture.”
A major part of the culture, according to Blackwelder, was using the lure of the Adirondacks to draw talented workers to Schenectady.
“GE exploited certain things about this region, and one of them was the Adirondacks,” she said. “There was a lot about recreation, and love of the outdoor life. And back in those days it was very common for corporations to have a variety of activities for its employees. There were sports teams that represented companies. It was all part of the corporate philosophy of building this culture that helped bind people to the company.”
Another point of Blackwelder’s book is her assertion that the company went out of its way to turn its top scientists into celebrities, the best example being Charles Steinmetz, the “Wizard of Schenectady.”
“They never passed up an opportunity to publicize the accomplishments of their technical men, and to praise them for being men who loved the outdoors,” she said.
“They tried to paint Steinmetz as this active, physically fit person and we all know that he had tremendous disabilities. They created this myth about him, surrounded him with enablers and turned him into something he was not. He received a lot of recognition, and he is very deserving, but he wasn’t acting alone. He didn’t work in a vacuum.”
Blackwelder also labeled Steinmetz as “manipulative and demanding,” and suggests the portrait of him painted by the recent documentary film, “Divine Discontent: Charles Proteus Steinmetz,” was a bit too complimentary.
“I thought it was very well done, but they wanted a hero and in my view he wasn’t a hero,” said Blackwelder, who was interviewed for the film. “He wasn’t really even a scientist; he was more of a mathematician. GE cultivated this image of him working alone accomplishing great things, and I think they overstated it.”
Blackwelder also discusses the “old boy” network in GE that made things tough for women to break into the engineering and technical field.
“The GE culture offered many things to its workers, such as stability, but it was classist, racist and sexist,” she said.
“There is a chapter in the book about women and how they were marginalized by the company. You get the sense they never really belonged at GE, and in the 21st century they still hardly belong, at least in the technical positions. Those professions still basically belong to white men.”
While some of Blackwelder’s conclusions may ruffle some feathers, she is a highly respected researcher. Her 2003 book, “Styling Jim Crow,” was hailed by The Women’s Review of Books as “an important contribution to understanding how African-American women (and men) often with great resourcefulness and stamina, negotiated the constraints imposed by Jim Crow and built lives for themselves.”
Her two other books, “Now Hiring: The Feminization of Work in the United States, 1900-1995,” (1997) and “Women of the Depression: Caste and Culture in San Antonio, 1929-1939,” (1984) were also well-received by critics.
“Electric City” figures to be a pretty big seller in the Capital Region, where those whose lives have been intertwined with GE have been looking for a new book documenting the history of the company.
George Wise, a GE retiree whose book, “Willis R. Whitney, General Electric and the Origins of U.S. Industrial Research,” told the story of one of its top scientists, is among those people.
“I know Julia, I’ve talked to her, and I know she’s a good historian,” said Wise. “I’ve been waiting for someone to write a history so I’m very much looking forward to it. Recent books about GE have been on [former CEO] Jack Welch, and they’re either too praising of him or too damning. There isn’t a whole lot of history in those books.”
While Wise hasn’t had the opportunity to read Blackwelder’s book yet, Steven W. Usselman, a history professor and chairman of the department at the Georgia Institute of Technology, has.
“Brimming with fascinating portraits of management and workers on the job and at leisure, ‘Electric City’ subtly probes the values and cultural practices undergirding American society during the nation’s age of manufacturing preeminence,” Usselman wrote in a blurb for the book cover.
“Blackwelder’s deft treatment of the masculine engineering ethos permeating GE’s culture, and her rich examination of how that ethos shaped life in Schenectady, mark this as an important and pioneering work in the cultural history of American business.”
Blackwelder, who is working on a new book about another former GE president, E.W. Rice, is hopeful that “Electric City” will find a market among academics and the general population.
“You could read the chapters that interest you, but while they do stand on their own they are all connected,” she said. “I think if you want to understand what it means to live in this region, or you want to know why the workforce looks the way it does today, then the book will be of interest to you.”
“Electric City” will be published later this month and will cost $35. It is 272 pages with 26 black-and-white photographs. Blackwelder will be at the Schenectady County Historical Society at 6 p.m. Nov. 20 to talk about her book.
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