CORRECTION: A previous version of this story contained incorrect information about the origins of the first alternating-current (AC) system of distribution. This technology was developed by Westinghouse engineer William Stanley, who later went on to join General Electric.
EDITOR’S NOTE: For 11 weeks, we’ve brought you the stories of some of the key people — the engineers, scientists and business leaders — behind General Electric’s rise to world prominence. This week, our series on GE’s 125th anniversary takes a closer look at some of the inventions hatched in GE’s labs from the early days to the 1950s. Next week, we look at the 1950s to the present.
When the Edison Electric Light Co. opened in 1878, an age of marvels began.
Thomas Edison and his backers had grand plans for their bold venture, which eventually would become the General Electric Co. The first miracle, the Edison system of incandescent lighting of 1879, put bright light in homes and offices.
During the next 70 years, General Electric would give power, heat and cold to world clients. A mission — bring good things to life — had begun. And it began with engineers and scientists such as Charles Steinmetz, William D. Coolidge, Willis R. Whitney, Irving Langmuir, Katharine B. Blodgett and Ernst F. W. Alexanderson, among others.
“You have these new inventions kind of seemingly doing the impossible pretty much year after year,” said Chris Hunter, director of archives and collections at miSci, Schenectady’s museum of innovation and science. “Sometimes, for things like the telephone, it takes some time to work out the bugs.”
General Electric’s big steam turbine generators at work at Waterside Station in New York City. (Courtesy miSci)
The greatest hits of General Electric’s first decades included the light bulb, radio transmission, the X-ray tube, the refrigerator and the steam turbine generator. Customers in both the national and international markets lined up to buy .
“Edison does his first kind of large-scale DC installation at Pearl Street Station in New York City in 1882,” Hunter said. “By 1883, he’s making international sales and starting to set up international companies and his competitors were pretty much the same way, so it was going global.”
Pearl Street Station, the first central power plant in the United States, provided direct current to clients in the immediate vicinity. According to the Schenectady-based Edison Tech Center, the station picked up 500 customers during its first two years.
Hunter believes three inventions lead the long roster of Edison success stories that began during the late 19th century into the first half of the 20th century — they were all about light, power and cold.
The electric light kept getting better and better during the early 1900s.
In 1909, according to GE records at miSci, company scientists turned heat-resistant tungsten — considered too brittle for practical use by many — into the world’s most flexible wire. Tungsten replaced carbon and made the Edison incandescent lamp more efficient. Improvements continued.
“All of a sudden, your light bulb lasts a lot longer and can be made cheaper,” Hunter said.
The steam turbine generator quickly became popular. The generation of electricity had suddenly became easier and more efficient.
“Essentially, what happened until the first steam turbine generator came along in 1903, electricity was generated through a steam engine,” Hunter said. “These were big, totally gigantic things. When General Electric developed the steam turbine engine in 1903, it ended up being able to generate the same amount of electricity as the previous generation of equipment in only 1/10th the size.”
The 5,000-kilowatt rating — fantastic for the era — is considered low power today.
Kilowatts of 1903 pleased both utility companies and consumers. Hunter said companies could build smaller power plants and use less equipment. Customers paid reduced utility costs.
“In 1910, one in seven people had access to electricity,” Hunter said. “By 1920, in cities, at least, pretty much everyone did.”
Pretty much everyone wanted a refrigerator. In 1927, the “monitor top” refrigerator became the first appliance consumers couldn’t wait to plug in.
“Some of the GE audio ads from 1929 emphasize the phrase ‘Making it safe to be hungry,'” Hunter said.
General Electric’s refrigerator with the distinctive top in 1929, left, and an electric toaster in the early 1900s. (Courtesy miSci)
Complex plumbing and the high cost of earlier models were eliminated. So were visits from the ice man, who hauled blocks of frozen water into homes and installed the temporary cold power into ice boxes.
Now, a bottle of milk, beer or orange juice would always be cold.
“And especially your meats,” Hunter said. “If they weren’t kept cold enough, they would pretty much spoil immediately. The safety aspect of the refrigerator was gigantic. And the other thing that happened was you could store your food longer, you didn’t have to go out to the corner store every day. All of a sudden, you’re going out shopping once a week.”
People who could afford a refrigerator also could afford to travel for their supplies. Hunter said they could leave their neighborhoods to visit different stores and compare prices.
“The refrigerator helped lead to the development of the supermarket,” he said.
Monitor tops occasionally turn up in movies from the 1930s and 1940s – the machine is easily identified by the circular “monitor” compressor on top of the box.
“It got the name ‘monitor top’ because the compressor of the refrigerator, its’ casing looked like the turret from the USS Monitor, which had some of its components built in Schenectady during the Civil War,” Hunter said.
The Monitor was an iron-hulled steamship.
Another invention would spark new business. Radio broadcasts meant words and music. They also meant radio programs and advertisements, and jobs for actors, writers and technical support. Advertising agencies had a new medium to pitch clients’ products.
Not every General Electric product was a winner. Hunter said the luminous electric radiator, which came with large, long light bulbs, stuck around for 10 years.
“It didn’t quite make it, and some of the appliances like the chafing dish never really caught on in the mass market.”
Toasters also did a slow burn, at first. Bread warmers first appeared in 1924.
“It didn’t really catch on until after World War II,” Hunter said. “Once you got into the Depression, people were happy to have any toast. Upgrading your toaster was more of a luxury. The two appliances that did increase in sales during the Depression were the refrigerator and the toaster.”
Here are some of the other top Edison and General Electric inventions from the 1870s into the 1950s:
- Phonograph: Edison invented the phonograph in 1877, and brought music into halls and homes.
- Three-wire system: In 1883, the three-wire distribution of power to homes started as direct current (DC) and evolved into the alternating system (AC) currently in use today.
- First AC system: The first AC system of distribution, using transformers connected in parallel, was in use by 1886, developed by Westinghouse engineer William Stanley, who later went on to join General Electric.
- Carbon brush: The brush for motors and generators, still in use today, was invented in 1888.
- Electric locomotive: GE employs electricity on a large scale on 96-ton electric locomotives, 1895.
- Laboratory: GE creates the first laboratory in U.S. industry dedicated to scientific research, 1900.
- Steam turbine: Charles G. Curtis’ first steam turbine, built by GE in 1901.
- Alternator for voice: Ernst Alexanderson’s high frequency alternator is used by Reginald Fesseden to broadcast the human voice, 1906.
- Tungsten process: Dr. William D. Coolidge invents the process for making ductile tungsten wire for incandescent lamps, 1906.
- Range: The first Hotpoint electric range, 1910 (Hotpoint became a division of GE in 1927).
- X-ray tube: The hot-cathode, high vacuum X-ray tube, 1913.
- Gas lamp: Dr. Irving Langmuir patents the gas-filled incandescent lamp, 1913.
- Vacuum tube: The three-element, high-vacuum tube, 1913.
- Ship turbine: The first geared turbine for ship propulsion, 1915.
- Better tungsten: Non-sag tungsten wire developed for lamp filaments, 1917.
- Diesel electric: The diesel electric locomotive, 1918.
- Supercharger: The supercharger for aircraft engines, 1918.
- Even better tungsten: Thoriated tungsten filament for radio and power tubes, 1920.
- Magnetron: The magnetron tube, a key component for radar systems during World War II and later the basis for the microwave oven, 1921.
- Better bulb: The inside frost incandescent lamp, 1925.
- Glyptal and alkyl: Glyptal paints, alkyl resins, 1925.
- Loudspeaker: Dynamic loudspeaker for audio receiver, 1926.
- Television: GE’s Ernst Alexanderson engineers the first TV broadcasts from the company’s WGY station, 1927.
- Heating elements: Calrod heating elements for stoves, 1930.
- Mercury lamps: High-pressure mercury lamps for highways and streets, 1933.
- Fluorescent: The first practical low-pressure discharge lamps for white light, 1938.
- “Invisible” glass: Katharine B. Blodgett invents non-reflecting “invisible” glass, which becomes the prototype for coatings used today on camera lenses and optical devices, including prescription eyeglasses, 1939.
- Silicone: Direct process for making silicones, 1940.
- Jet engine: GE introduces what will become the world’s most-produced jet engine in history, the J 47, 1947.
- Soft light: The Q-coat process for soft white incandescent lamps, 1949.
- Transistors and rockets: GE develops some of the first power transistors and pioneers in rocket technology, 1950s.