EDITOR'S NOTE: From the self-cleaning oven to the MRI, the second half of the 20th century was a period of continued scientific breakthroughs for General Electric. This week in our series on GE's 125th anniversary, we look back at the company's biggest hits of this period.
SCHENECTADY — At the General Electric Co., diamonds were a scientist's best friend during the mid-1950s.
These diamonds were special because they were man-made. Researchers at GE's Research and Development Lab in Niskayuna created the synthetic diamond in 1955, according to miSci, Schenectady's museum for innovation and science.
The breakthrough was part of company output during the second half of a distinguished, 125-year history. While light bulbs, toasters, televisions and refrigerators were among the early successes for the General Electric Co., diamonds, medical equipment, the solid state laser and even the electric tooth brush became must-have products for industry and the home market.
The General Electric toaster oven (left) was introduced in 1956. At right, Dr. Arthur Bueche, director of the General Electric Research and Development Center, tests a computerized tomography scanner, or a CT scanner. The device came out in 1976. (Courtesy miSci)
Officials at miSci said the man-made diamond was such a big deal because diamonds created in the lab freed the world from dependence on the natural stones. It meant hundreds of new uses for the hardest material known to man, things like grinding, drilling, cutting and wire drawing.
"It was something people had been trying to do for ages," said Chris Hunter, miSci's director of archives and collections. "GE was the first to do it, kind of re-create the hardest mineral. They found it pretty useful as a kind of super abrasive, so record needles were one of the first applications and then they found uses to strengthen saw blades and cutting tools."
Here are a few other early scores from GE's second half:
- General Electric had been the first U.S. company to use a computer in a factory, at its appliance plant in Louisville, Kentucky. During the 1960s, innovative forms of computer hardware and software wore GE labels. So did technology that made possible "time-sharing" — in which many people at different terminals could use a particular computer system at the same time — an important step for computer networking.
- By 1961, the solid-state laser was news at General Electric. The laser would later become the basis for compact disc players and laser printers.
- During the 1960s, GE had become a world leader in the aerospace industry, with inventions such as re-entry vehicles, the Nimbus weather satellite and the Landsat earth resources surveying satellite. The Lexan polycarbonate resin was a new impact-resistant form of polycarbonate, and was an advance in the field of plastics.
- In the 1970s, General Electric assisted the medical community. Computed tomography became a new way to look at cross sections inside the head or body. The CT scanner introduced technology that saved lives and improved health in hospitals around the world.
"This really kind of transformed the medical imaging field," Hunter said. "CT is still a form of X-ray, but the imaging was like night and day and MRI [magnetic resonance imaging, 1983] is important because that allowed you to see soft tissue."
GE Medical Systems projects now include nuclear medicine cameras, ultrasound systems, patient-monitoring devices and mammography systems.
Electric cars might have seen a natural for General Electric. During the 1970s, Hunter said, company scientists and engineers were on the case.
"It was never really their intention to go into the auto business," Hunter said. "They kind of knew about the start-up involved in that and the rarity of new companies being successful in that market."
Research continued. So did the new innovations and inventions.
"What they're really working on now is the industrial Internet," Hunter said. "All these turbines and generators, all these big machines, they have all these sensors on them that collect all this data. But it's really kind of developing systems to interpret and manage this data by doing preventative maintenance."
A model works in a modern, 1965 kitchen furnished with General Electric products (left) while General Electric's self-cleaning oven (right) hit the market in 1963. (Courtesy miSci)
Among GE's triumphs of the past 70-plus years:
- The GE man-made diamond, 1955
- Allan S. Hay invents "PPO" — poly-phenylene oxide plastic — a forerunner to GE's Noryl resin, 1956
- The toaster oven, Model T-83, 1956
- The GE "Mark Series" line of punched paper tape input for numerical control of machine tools, 1957
- Tungsten-Halogen lamp "Quartzline," 1959
- Lucalox invented, a high-density aluminum oxide, 1959
- Electric toothbrush, 1961
- Metal Halide lamp for street lighting, 1962
- High-powered magnet. GE engineers build the world's strongest magnet by using superconductors and a special wound coil, 1962.
- Self-cleaning oven, 1963
- Terminet 300 teleprinter, 1968
- Superconductive tunneling discovery, 1973. Ivar Giaever of Niskayuna builds a device that proves the existence of quantum tunneling, which wins him the Nobel Prize in Physics.
- Computed tomography (CT) scanner, 1976
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), 1983
- Digital X-ray detector, 1997
General Electric's computed tomography team in 1976. CT scanners greatly improved medical imaging. (Courtesy miSci)