125 years ago, GE story began with visit to Massachusetts

Company was big contributor to World War II effort 
An aerial view of the main General Electric campus in Schenectady.
An aerial view of the main General Electric campus in Schenectady.

When Charles Coffin invited two Edison men to visit the Thomson-Houston plant in Lynn, Massachusetts, back in February of 1891, everybody knew something was up.

Coffin was CEO of the Thomson-Houston Electric Company, created in 1883, and Henry Villard and J.R. Lovejoy were two top officials at the Edison General Electric Company, which the famous inventor, Thomas Edison, brought to Schenectady in 1886.  Both companies were doing pretty well in the burgeoning electrical industry, but with each holding patents on several different aspects of the “lighting” business, public demand for electric service was not being met. While it was Edison’s men who first made an overture for consolidation, Coffin also believed a merger would be best for Thomson-Houston.

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It took some doing, but by April 15, 1892, the details of the merger were agreed upon, and the General Electric Company was born. All this year, as the company moves its headquarters from Fairfield, Connecticut to Boston, GE will be celebrating 125 years of being a leader in technological innovation.  Now a multinational conglomerate with 330,000 employees around the world, GE still has a huge presence in Schenectady County with its manufacturing plant in the city’s downtown section along with GE Global Research in Niskayuna.

The men behind the company

And, while the company is still largely linked to the creative genius of Edison, it was actually men like Coffin and his associates in Lynn who can take a large part of the credit for GE’s early success. When news of the merger officially hit the street on June 2 of that year, many were surprised that it wasn’t a Schenectady man at the helm instead of Coffin. Those in the know, however, men who knew all the main characters involved, never doubted the new leader would be Coffin.

In his 1941 book, “Men and Volts: The Story of General Electric,” author John Winthrop Hammond writes: “Among the notable group which had created General Electric, Charles A. Coffin stood out by force of personality.” Coffin was a businessman, not a scientist, and he believed, according to Hammond, that “the new company should consider first the public which it served, and only secondly its own success. No other policy could be regarded as good business.”

Edison, meanwhile, had brought his electric company to Schenectady six years earlier, and by 1892 he was growing disinterested in manufacturing pursuits and instead opted to remain at home in West Orange, New Jersey, to continue his independent research. While Coffin managed the business, usually from an executive office in New York City, it was Elihu Thomson who became the scientific head of the new company, and he would remain in Lynn.

GE’s Schenectady campus history

Graphic courtesy of General Electric

Many others, however, including a German immigrant named Charles Steinmetz who had only come to America in 1889, left Lynn and came to Schenectady. According to GE retiree George Wise, who has done extensive research on the history of the company, the arrival of men like Steinmetz and Edwin Rice happened just in time.

“By 1892, the busy and prosperous Schenectady Edison Machine Works was threatened with technological obsolescence,” said Wise, who recently produced an online book for the Schenectady County Historical Society called “Edison’s Decision.” “But on Jan. 22, 1894, Schenectady newspapers noted the arrival in that city of the top engineers from GE’s Lynn, Massachusetts, workforce. The list included such eminent names as Walter H. Knight, Henry G. Reist, Frederick Fish, F.G. Stockwell, and James Corden.”

Steinmetz, who suffered from dwarfism, hunchback and hip dysplasia, wasn’t on the list because he was relatively unknown at the time. Not quite 5 feet tall, he was referred to as a “calculator” by his Lynn colleagues. But in Schenectady, he became the face of General Electric and was known around the world as the “Wizard of Schenectady.”

“Steinmetz,” said Wise, “was one of the few people in the world who had mastered mathematics that underlay the second alternating current revolution. The 20th century would be Steinmetz’s and General Electric’s century.”

It was the alternating current/direct current debate that dominated the electrical world in the final decades of the 19th century, and with Edison tinkering away at his research lab in New Jersey, his dogged refusal to acknowledge that AC would be the way of the future didn’t impact GE negatively. Instead, Steinmetz’s ability to apply math to electrical problems kept GE at the forefront of electrification.

“Steinmetz was one of the chief people who developed a mathematical foundation that would allow engineers to make improvements to the alternating current system,” said Chris Hunter, Vice-president of Collections and Exhibitions at miSci in downtown Schenectady.  “He developed the study of transient phenomena and brought the study of lightning and power surges into the lab. He made significant improvements to arc lighting and was known as the top motor and generator designer in the world. Ford and Marconi came to Schenectady to see him, and so did Edison.”

Breaking new ground

With Steinmetz leading the way in the lab and Coffin and his New York bankers helping the company get through the 1893 Depression, GE marched into the 20th Century in good form. In 1896, the company was one of 12 businesses on the very first listing of the Dow Jones Industrial Average, and 120 years later it is the only original firm remaining.

Steinmetz’s fame attracted other great minds. In 1901, Swedish immigrant Ernst Alexanderson came to Schenectady to work alongside Steinmetz, and in 1906 he was responsible for the first long-distance voice transmission. Two decades later, Alexanderson transmitted a television signal from Proctors in Schenectady to his home in the GE Realty Plot, the first home television reception in history.

Irving Langmuir, who worked for GE from 1909 to 1950, came to Schenectady to work at the GE Lab, initiated by Steinmetz, and won the company’s first Nobel Prize in 1932 for his work in surface chemistry.

By the 1950s, GE’s laboratory was the R&D Center in Niskayuna, where another immigrant, Norwegian Ivar Giaever, was hired as a mechanical engineer. Twenty years later, and by then a physicist, Giaever won GE’s second Nobel Prize in 1973 for his work with superconductors.

And it wasn’t just scientists coming to Schenectady. There were 14,000 people living in the city when Edison showed up in 1886. That number increased to nearly 32,000 by 1900 due to an influx of immigrant labor looking for work.

By 1910, the population had increased to 72,826, and by 1920, it was nearly at 90,000. And GE wasn’t just employing people in Schenectady and Lynn. By 1915, there were also major plants in Erie, Pennsylvania; Fort Wayne, Indiana and Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

GE was a big contributor to the World War II effort and has continued to play a key role in the development of 21st century technology, with 12 subsidiary companies in areas such as aviation, energy, power and transportation. While it may not have the impact on Schenectady it once did – during World War II there were nearly 40,000 employees at the main plant downtown – GE does still have around 7,000 people on its payroll in the Capital Region.

According to a economic impact study done by Tripp Umbach, GE brings $4 billion into the Capital Region, with $1 out of every $7 of Schenectady County’s economy generated by GE either directly or indirectly. One in 13 jobs in Schenectady County are a result of GE’s operations, and each year it’s employees account for approximately 41,000 hours of volunteer time to the community. Schenectady may no longer be the “City that lights and hauls the world,” as it was 75 years ago, but that moniker, according to historian Julia Kirk Blackwelder, was not an exaggeration.

“Early in the 20th century, GE was the largest manufacturing company in the world,” said Blackwelder, whose book, “The Electric City: The Story of General Electric In Schenectady, was published in 2014. “At the time of its founding it was an international company. It was our connection to the world. Without GE, there never would have been that wonderful, full-flowered city of Schenectady that we know from 1900 to 1950.”

Categories: Business, News, Schenectady County

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