Great names and great ideas have flowed into and out of Schenectady in the 350 years since Arendt van Curler bought several acres of fertile land below a horseshoe bend in the Mohawk River, leading to the founding of the future city.
Starting out as a trading colony, Schenectady grew to become known as the “city that lights and hauls the world.”
The “lights” aspect applied to the city’s role, as home to General Electric, in researching, developing and manufacturing power generating systems — turbines, motors, generators — and in advancements in light bulb technology.
The “haul” aspect refers to the city as home of the American Locomotive Co., also known as Alco. Alco produced 75,000 steam locomotives during its time of operations. In 1941, the company built the largest locomotive in the world, weighing with tender more than 1.2 million pounds. It also built the M-7 tank destroyer during WW II. The M-7 was developed and constructed in secret and made its killing debut in Africa.
Other Schenectady legacies:
* The founding in 1795 of Union College, the first nondenominational college in the United States. The first classes were held in a building owned by the Dutch Reformed Church on the northwest corner of Union and North Ferry streets.
“A combination of churches founded it; that is what set it apart,” said Frank Wicks, a member of the Edison Tech Center in Schenectady and a Union College professor.
* Home to the jet engine. During World War I, GE in Schenectady developed the supercharger, said Chris Hunter, an archivist with the Schenectady Museum and Suits-Bueche Planetarium. “They used it in a car that won the Indianapolis 500 in the 1920s. That grew into the jet engine,” he said. GE built a flight test center where the Empire State Aerosciences Museum is now located on Route 50 in Glenville.
* Birthplace of John Sayles, the author and independent film producer, and hometown to Pat Riley, NBA coach and player. Author Kurt Vonnegut lived in Schenectady when he worked for General Electric in the early 1950s. The Schenectady High school of fine arts is named after Sayles.
* Birthplace of Edison General Electric, which later became General Electric. Thomas Edison picked Schenectady as site of his operations because it offered cheap working space and access to transportation, Hunter said. Schenectady has for years been a transportation hub — the Mohawk River at first, followed by the Erie Canal, railroads and a road network.
* Home to a young George Westinghouse Jr., who invented the railroad air brake and developed a practical network to distribute alternative current, on which the world runs.
Light bulb research
Hunter said the light bulb was not invented here, but many improvements were made here, including a tungsten filament that is now standard in incandescent bulbs.
One of the brightest minds to call Schenectady home was William Coolidge, who was director of GE’s Research Laboratory and a vice president of the corporation at the turn of the 20th century.
Coolidge developed ductile tungsten, which could be drawn into filaments. The filaments lasted longer in light bulbs, helping make the bulbs themselves last longer. This made them more efficient and cheaper to make.
The light bulb changed America: it allowed for an increase in productivity, with people able to work beyond the traditional quitting time of dusk, and accelerated the electrification of America.
“There was this trend in the early 1900s to make electricity easier to generate and use, and Schenectady was at the forefront of that,” Hunter said. He said in 1910, one in seven urban homes had electricity. By 1920, closer to 80 percent did.
“A lot of the work being done here at GE made that possible,” Hunter said.
Coolidge also invented a tube with an improved cathode for use in X-ray machines. It included the tungsten filament. The X-ray device GE made that used the tube became standard in the medical imaging field until the advent of computerized axial tomography (more popularly known as CAT-scans) and magnetic resonance imaging, which GE helped commercialize.
Coolidge and other GE research engineers, working out of the research and development center at the main plant, also worked to develop steam turbines and generators, which are manufactured at the GE Schenectady-Rotterdam campus.
Hunter noted that GE’s research and development facility was a trendsetter in the 1900s, and continues this today. The facility got its start in the garage of another great thinker, Charles Proteus Steinmetz, who developed theories for alternating current. The center later moved to the GE Schenectady-Rotterdam campus and later to Niskayuna.
Hunter said the center was key to GE’s success. “GE gave them [scientists] the freedom to do research and the resources to make these groundbreaking discoveries,” he said. “When GE opened its research laboratory in 1900, it was the first large industrial laboratory in the world.”
The center attracted the best and the brightest — some of whom stayed and some of whom just visited. Willis Whitney, the laboratory’s first director recorded them in a VIP guest book he kept at his desk from 1914 to 1935. The names include Niels Bohrs, winner of the 1922 Nobel Prize in physics; Guglielmo Marconi, inventor of a radio telegraph machine; and Ivan Pavlov, know for his salivating dog experiments but also a 1904 winner of the Nobel Prize in physiology.
The R&D center helped commercialize refrigeration, radio, television and medical imaging, Hunter said.
Other bright minds at GE who produced momentous inventions: William Comings White, who developed vacuum tubes — predecessors of transistors and today’s microchips; and Irving Langmuir, who won the 1932 Nobel Prize in chemistry. There was also Sanford Moss, who introduced the first superchargers during World War I and continued to develop them during the Interwar period.