World War II at 75: General Electric’s key contributions

The packed parking lot of GE during wartime
The packed parking lot of GE during wartime

Editor’s Note: This year marks the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II. Schenectady City Historian Chris Leonard observes the milestone with a six-story series of articles that examines Schenectady’s role in the war effort and other topics, including today’s third installment — the major inventions and technical improvements performed at GE in Schenectady that changed the course of the war.

It is no stretch to state that the General Electric Works in Schenectady drove the allied victory in World War II. Without the work performed by GE in Schenectady and Niskayuna, the war would have dragged on for years, possibly with a different conclusion.

Schenectady GE’s innovations were not glamorous. The company did not produce tanks, ships, or bombers, but developed systems, components, and devices that improved the performance of all.  Additionally, GE’s work on cutting edge technologies protected soldiers and strategic locations, kept them fed, and allowed them to engage the enemy in ways never possible.

A Change in Leadership

As one of the leading companies of the era, the U.S. government tapped GE executives to run industrial bureaus during the war.  Phillip Reed, chairman of GE from 1940-1942, was selected Chief of the Bureau of Industries of the War Production Board. Charles E. Wilson, GE’s president from 1939-1942, was appointed to the War Production Board as its executive vice-chairman. Both would return to their positions at GE as the war ended.

To replace Reed and Wilson, GE turned to the experienced leadership of Gerald Swope, GE’s president from 1922-1940, and Owen D. Young, the company’s chairman from 1922-1939. Both came out of retirement to direct the company through the war years.

Changes also were afoot at the General Electric Research Laboratory, where Dr. William D. Coolidge put his planned 1940 retirement on hold to lead the division through the war.

At — and under — the sea

GE Schenectady’s most significant job was producing propulsion units for U.S. Navy ships and the U.S. Merchant Marine.

The Navy redesigned its fleet in the 1930s, and the U.S. Merchant Marine was rebuilt beginning in 1936. GE created geared turbine drives for a new class of destroyers, which decreased fuel consumption. This technology later went into new battleships, cruisers, and other ships.

The Navy played a vital role in the delivery of oil to European allies during the war. Pre-war oil tankers were slow, ponderous vessels, which were popular, vulnerable targets of Nazi wolfpacks during the Battle of the Atlantic. Schenectady manufactured drives to power a new class of fast tankers that could keep better pace with destroyer escorts, increasing the likelihood of successful delivery.

GE’s involvement with the Navy was pervasive. Turbines for six of the 10 battleships built during the war, 37 of 43 cruisers, and 200 of 364 destroyers came from GE. Approximately 3/4 of the Navy’s total propulsion and auxiliary turbine horsepower was built by GE or contracted out by them.

By the end of the war, GE supplied the Navy with 27 million horsepower of turbine propulsion. Schenectady shipped more in four years to the Navy than it had in the previous 40 years of production.

Diesel-electric propulsion units for submarines and electrically-driven propellers to lessen fuel usage and provide higher performance came out of Schenectady. GE worked on every class of submarine built from 1935 to war’s end, a total of 174 units, 2/3 of all U.S. submarines.

In the Air

While GE Schenectady did not build planes, it developed a host of systems and components to improve the performance of many U.S. planes. Autopilot systems and remote turret controls designed in Schenectady allowed pilots and crew to stay fresher, fly longer and fight more effectively.

GE developed more components used in the B-29 Superfortress bomber than any other company. The power-supply systems and voltage regulators came from Schenectady. With a flight ceiling over 30,000, the interior temperature of a B-29 would drop below freezing. Schenectady developed heated flight suits and goggles, allowing the success of critical missions like the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. GE built some 400,000 electrically-heated suits for high altitude planes.

On Land

Along with turbine propulsion, Schenectady focused on the construction of large motors. These engines for tanks and heavy vehicles were used by Navy Seabees to build landing strips on islands throughout the Pacific. GE also built an enormous motor to lift destroyers out of the water when in drydock.

In 1932, Nobel Prize winner Dr. Irving Langmuir developed the M1 smoke generator, which covered facilities, troops, and cities with smoke, protecting them from aerial assault. These portable devices were so successful they even made the Panama Canal disappear.

As the company that “lit the world,” GE constructed new hardened lamps and lighting systems for bases and vehicles. They also created brighter searchlights that could track enemy planes through the sky, making them vulnerable to defensive emplacements.

Plastics, Rubbers and Chemical Breakthroughs

At the beginning of the war, conventional plastics like Bakelite had rigid structures, low melting points and produced noxious fumes when burned. None of these characteristics were ideal in war theaters, as concussion from bombs, cannon fire and fires were frequent.

With most Pacific rubber plantations under Japanese control and vulnerable South America cargo ships carrying raw rubber falling prey to German and Japanese torpedoes, new and safe sources were required.

GE Schenectady developed high-performance materials like silicone and molded plastics that could handle the rigors of war. These polymers made meters, instruments and control devices in planes and ships dependable and safer to operate.

Radar and Countermeasures

In the late 1930s, GE inventor Chester Rice successfully tested radar from the front room of his house on Lowell Road. A modified version of the magnetron, developed by Dr. Albert Hull of the Research Laboratory, was the primary functioning device. Early deployment of radar in the UK in 1940 helped England win the Battle of Britain.

To keep the Germans guessing, the British press published articles about their pilots’ love of carrots, which improved their eyesight, creating the well-known folktale.

Dr. C. G. Suits, who would manage the Research Laboratory after Coolidge’s official retirement in 1944, led a cross GE team to develop radar countermeasure systems. The systems jammed German radar and allowed the landings in Sicily and on D-Day to come off as surprises.

Of X-rays and Appliances

While X-ray technology is best known for its work in medical fields, Schenectady GE developed tools to lessen equipment and weaponry failure. GE deployed X-ray testing systems to identify problems in bomb casings and fuses to make sure damaged ordnance did not make its way onto the field. GE developed portable units to identify live, unexploded ordnance while reconditioning battle sites.

Already a leader in the manufacture of appliances, GE Schenectady developed rugged freezers, refrigerators, cooking ranges, fans, fire suppression systems and more, for use on ships and in field installations. These kept soldiers, sailors, and liberated peoples fed and safe.

For its service to the country during the war, GE Schenectady was awarded the Navy “E Ribbon” on May 23, 1942, and the Army-Navy “E Ribbon” three times — on September 14, 1942, February 7, 1944, and April 30, 1945.

In the next article, we will look at the Schenectady home front during the war, covering how Schenectady’s residents labored, sacrificed, and persevered to keep the city functioning during the war.

Chris Leonard is the City Historian of Schenectady. He can be reached at [email protected]. All photos are courtesy of the Efner History Center in Schenectady City Hall or the Grems-Doolittle Library at the Schenectady County Historical Society.

Categories: -News-, Schenectady County

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