General Electric Research Lab
A hot spot for innovation on the planet for the last 111 years

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 world's technology.

Above: AC power pioneer C.P. Steinmetz contemplates a problem. 1890's

Steinmetz 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.

The 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 yard.

Above: 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.


Willis R. Whitney - first director of the GE Research Lab

It 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 bulb.

The 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 named Irving 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.

A 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:

-Ezekiel Weintraub 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.

-Ernst 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.

-Willis Whitney develops the GEM carbon filament lamp. This improves light output efficacy by 25%.

-In 1908 Coolidge had 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.

-William 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 same year.

-Ernst Alexanderson's 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.

-Albert Hull's work created new vacuum tubes as well as the magnetron (microwave).

The Legal Support:

We could 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:

The success 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

C.Guy Suits - Director of the Lab, ushering in a new era of technology in the 2nd half of the 20th century

In 1955 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 on projects.

Reorganization, the Merging of Labs

In 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 Gerald Phillippe.

As 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.

Developments 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"

Challenging Times for the Lab

The 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.

Going Global

1999: 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:
-Bangalore, India
-Shanghai, China
-Munich, Germany
-Rio de Janiero, Brazil

In 2008-2010 the company opened smaller labs in Cincinnati, OH and Detroit, MI.


A Better Future

General 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.

Past lab directors include:

Willis Whitney
William D. Coolidge
Chauncy Guy Suits

Arthur M. Bueche - Name Change to Coporate Research and Development (GE CR&D)
Roland Schmitt
Walter Robb
Lonnie Edelheidt

Scott Donnely
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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