Electric Research Lab A hot spot for innovation on the planet for the last
The General Electric Research Lab stands as a testament to the power
of gathering engineers together with a common purpose. The lab was
the first industrial research lab of its kind. Prior to the formation
of the GE Research Lab the only industrial research labs were German
pharmaceutical labs. In the German labs like Bayer scientists and researchers
worked independently and competed with one another. At General Electric
in Schenectady, New York engineers and scientists were encouraged to
share information and assist with problem solving. They were given great
financial support to buy materials. The best machinists and craftsmen
were employed to help build prototypes. From the tungsten light bulb
to the computerized hybrid car it is no wonder that the Schenectady
lab produced a great proportion of our
had joined GE in 1891 and worked at Lynn, MA. His first work included
important work designing the new technology of the three-phase
alternating current generator. His work put General Electric ahead
of Westinghouse. In 1893 He moved to Schenectady, New York where
he lived out the rest of his life working as a consultant for
GE, professor at Union College, and active socialist in city government.
idea for the laboratory was first promoted by Charles
P. Steinmetz in the late 1890's. Steinmetz was GE's star engineer
and kept in touch with associates back in Switzerland and Germany.
Steinmetz was concerned that Companies like Siemens, and independent
researchers like Walther Nernst were developing new forms of electric
light that would damage GE's superiority in the market. Steinmetz
and E.W. Rice explained to GE management that it was necessary
to spend money on a lab and researchers who would work on the
next big profitable item for the company. This investment would
cost plenty, but would pay off in the longer term. GE did have
a measurements laboratory led by Lou Robinson. This lab maintained
and created instrumentation to measure electricity. The new research
lab would be far more than Robinson's lab in scale. E.W.
Rice wanted Steinmetz to head the lab but Steinmetz refused.
Rice then went to great electrical pioneer Elihu
Thomson in Lynn, MA. Thomson refused, he preferred to live
close to the sea at the Lynn GE plant. Thomson suggested a young
man named Willis
Whitney at MIT. With the help of President Coffin and Edwin
Rice the General Electric Research Lab was formed in 1900. The
lab was temporarily located in Steinmetz's garage in his back
Lenox Road, Schenectady, New York: The first building of the GE
Research Lab was located in the garage/barn behind the horse.
The horse and dogs belonged to Charles P. Steinmetz.
R. Whitney - first director of the GE Research Lab
was clear that to make new inventions or innovations that the
company needed more scientifically trained engineers. Prior
to this, inventions were simpler and could be discovered by trial
and error methods of tinkerers. At that point in history the fields
of physics, chemistry and mathematics progressed so rapidly that
those who graduated from universities in the early 1890's were
far behind those who graduated just 5-10 years later; for this
reason management decided to hire young recruits. Glass blowing
apparatus for creation of experimental light bulbs was an early
priority. Soon they hired William
D. Coolidge and a handful of others to help improve the light
early GE Research Lab team: Steinmetz on the left, the Hayden
Family, It might be Irving Langmuir with the bowtie in the center.
This photo and those on the left were taken in Steimetz's garage.
As the lab expanded
it moved to the GE main plant west of downtown Schenectady. Researchers
were given large rooms to work and a spirit of freedom developed.
Researchers were loosely guided and could develop any idea that
they felt had potential. A brilliant young researcher from Brooklyn
Langmuir was hired. He, like many new recruits had an education
at the most advanced schools of science and engineering which
were in Central Europe.
There was a large
difference between Thomas Edison's Menlo Park, and the GE Research
Lab. Historian George Wise stated that Edison's Menlo Park
was more of an "invention factory". It was a place where
inventors worked to experiment in order to find marketable new
products. Edison was a very strong personality and anyone he did
not like did not last long. For example: C.S. Bradley - the inventor
of the first 3 phase AC generator had worked for Edison for a
short time. After some disagreements he was let go and went on
independently to change history. The GE Research Lab was managed
by more balanced minds like Elihu Thomson, President Coffin, and
E.W. Rice. They knew they had to create a warm atmosphere of collaboration
to keep talent. In addition to this the team had to be trained
with the latest knowledge in physics, mechanics, and mathematics.
Edison's team was not as well trained. It is no wonder that Edison's
Menlo Park in Orange, New Jersey failed to continue with the success
achieved by the better managed and more adaptable GE Research
Lab in Schenectady.
typical laboratory room at the downtown research lab. In this photo
you see an experiment to create artificial lighting. The lighting was
used to test the strength of insulators which would be forced to take
real lighting strikes in the field.
A sample of some
of the early successes:
and Hewitt discover that mercury vapor causes the conversion of alternating
current to direct current. The "Mercury
Arc Rectifier" is thus used for many purposes including the
powering of DC electric trains, battery chargers, and more.
F.W. Alexanderson works on a single phase railway motor while Charles
G. Curtis develops the most powerful and efficient steam turbine
to date with the help of William LeRoy Emmet. The Curtis Turbine would
revolutionize power generation world wide. The first commercial sale
of the turbine was to the Chicago Edison Company and it produced 5000
kilowatts of power in 1903. Later turbines would be able to produce
increasing quantities of power with increasing efficiency.
develops the GEM carbon filament lamp. This improves light output efficacy
discovered how to make ductile tungsten. Tungsten was the perfect material
for the incandescent light bulb, this fact was known, but it was Coolidge's
work that discovered how to make tungsten bendable and easily manufacturable.
This would greatly improve the life and durability of the light bulb
and secure General Electric's position as #1 in incandescent light bulb
manufacturing for the next 100 years. His tungsten was also used in
the ignition of cars as a replacement for costly silver or platinum.
Coolidge greatly improves resolution of the X-ray by using his new tungsten
targets in 1912. Irving
Langmuir further develops early forms of the vacuum tube in the
work on radio and television broadcast solidified him as the "Father
of Radio and Television" and lead to the formation of RCA and the
big three networks. Alexanderson did not work directly in the lab, but
his labs were close to the others and all the engineers in radio/wireless
were able to work together on problems.
Hull's work created new vacuum tubes as well as the magnetron (microwave).
go on and on with the explosion in developments attained at the lab.
The point is that for the first time great minds were assembled and
given the needed resources to do their work. The collaboration of minds
and funding allowed the researchers to "play" in the world
of creativity. It is important not to forget the contributions of the
patent department. General Electric kept the best records of any other
company at the time in order to be able to prove dates and times that
inventions were created. The large numbers of patent attorneys sorted
out facts and proved/disproved claims by outside inventors. Some conflicts
for patents did arise. It is important to examine all angles of the
argument when trying to find out who invented something first. It is
possible that in some cases General Electric may have won legal battles
with its legal muscle. In these cases of conflict some outside inventors
may have lost claims to being the first simply because of inadequate
legal protection, however the great majority of inventions and developments
were truly developed first at the GE Research Lab.
The Success of the Lab:
of the lab can directly be attributed to the great collection of minds
who for the most part worked out of a passion for their work. In the
environment of the early GE Research Lab there was a great feeling of
teamwork. Working for fortune or fame was not this lab's environment.
While some engineers like Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla endlessly craved
fame and attention, the team in Schenectady worked relatively quietly.
Some like Steinmetz were even said to have created innovations on other
team members' projects and refused to take credit. C.W. Hewitt quietly
helped C.W. Rice and Edward Kellogg develop
the world's first powerful dynamic loudspeaker yet Hewitt was never
mentioned until years later. The noncompetitive environment of the lab
and the undirected research continued until the 1950's when C.
Guy Suits and others changed the structure of the lab. Many pioneers
worked at the lab. Some worked for a lifetime like Ernst Alexanderson
while others conducted short term projects like David Packard (of HP).
The facility in Niskayuna in the late 1950's
Suits - Director of the Lab, ushering in a new era of technology
in the 2nd half of the 20th century
the lab moved to Niskayuna, just a few miles north of Schenectady.
Now high-paid researchers could live in the growing wealthy suburbs
and commute easily to work, while the new property allowed for increased
security and plenty of space for expansion. In the Cold War environment
it was important to restrict access to the lab using the large amount
of acres of natural fields with fences to separate the lab from nearby
roads. The new location gave direct access to the Mohawk River for increased
water use as well as underwater experiments. During this time major
advances took place including Bob Hall's
semiconductor laser and the man made diamond. Director Guy Suits
divided the lab into Metallurgy & Ceramics, Electron Physics,
Chemistry, and General Physics. The lab continued to develop smaller
vacuum tubes. So much was spent on miniaturizing the vacuum tube that
the company did not wish to enter the semiconductor research being done
elsewhere. Learn more about this period from the documentary "Wizards
of Schenectady: C. Guy Suits"
See the Video Below to learn
more about the expansion of the lab:
The Lab shined in 1973
as one of its members Ivar
Giaever won the Nobel Peace Price in Physics for his work
on Physics. This was the second time a lab member won the prize
for work done at the lab. The same year William D. Coolidge, then
100 years old continued to spend free time at the lab working
the Merging of Labs
addition to the GE Research Lab in Schenectady each major manufacturing
facility across the US had its own small laboratory. These labs
assisted the manufacting process. Instruments were kept for assistance
in the improvement of products. Electronics Park Syracuse, Nela
Park, and the lab at Louisville were just some of these labs.
As the manufacturing capability of the US declined, some of these
plants shut down. With no more need on site for the lab, resources
were consolidated to Niskayuna under the leadership of GE President
Guy Suits Retired the lab was restructured into the GE Corporate
Research and Development Center (GE CR&D). The Advanced Technology
Lab led by Dr. George Haller merged with the Research Lab. Researchers
were now expected to only work on projects with a potential for
profit in the near term. Research was more directed directed and
engineers had to work more efficiently. After one year Phillippe
named Arthur M. Bueche to head the lab.
that were successful but did not fall into what GE management
wanted to get into were encouraged to spin off into independent
companies. Carl Rosner and Gary Morrow's work on superconductivity
were one such project that started at the lab and split off in
the 1970's. Their project developed into modern MRI technology
at Intermagnetics General (IGC). Learn about this period from
the documentary "Wizards of
Schenectady: Carl H. Rosner"
for the Lab
GE Research Lab kicked off the 1980's with the development of
the first computerized hybrid car
developed by Bob King and Andy Burke. Despite this and a few other
great developments, the lab suffered during the 80's. The business
environment had changed and it was viewed as more preferable to
buy successful technologies that had been developed elsewhere
instead of funding basic research. During this period employee
and researcher moral plummeted as the company fired employees
that had not "produced" recently. Much of GE's finest
talent went to companies like Lockheed Martin, IBM, and the academic
field. The "GE Family" concept, the warm atmosphere
and life long loyalties to the company slowly disintegrated into
a faster paced environment were employees were tacitly expected
to work long hours and weekends. Skilled machinists and craftsmen
were forced to retire or were laid off before replacements could
be hired or trained. This national business environment proved
to be a hard time until the 1990s.
General Electric changed the name of the lab again to the "General
Electric Global Research" in order to reflect the more global
nature its market. The company opened other research labs in:
-Rio de Janiero, Brazil
In 2008-2010 the company opened smaller labs in Cincinnati, OH
and Detroit, MI.
Electric will depend upon further breakthroughs to carry the company
into the future. The 2000's were an unstable time period, but if
one looks at the past there were other periods of great risk which
were changed by innovation. In 2011 President
Obama visited the GE Global Research Facility at Niskayuna to
check on there positive progress in the field of "green
energy". The lab has recently stated that it has made a
breakthrough in battery technology. If GE management does a good
job navigating the risky market of high tech and the engineers continue
to create great new solutions the General Electric Research Lab
will go on making another century of progress.
lab directors include:
William D. Coolidge
Chauncy Guy Suits
Arthur M. Bueche - Name Change to Coporate Research and Development
Mark Little (current) - Name Change to Global Research
-Article by Michael Whelan
with assistance from Bill
Kornrumpf and John Harnden Jr.
"Men and Volts" by John Hammond 1941
"The General Electric Story" - Hall of History Publications
1989 Interview with George Wise, by the Edison Tech Center 2010 Wizards of Schenectady, The Rice
Legacy by the Edison Tech Center 2010
Wikipedia: William D. Coolidge, Willis Whitney
Various Interviews with GE employees from the Techsplorer
Series by the Edison Tech Center 2007-2009
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