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The City that Lights the World: GE & Schenectady

From the household refrigerator to steam turbines, General Electric is everywhere. It all started in 1886 when Thomas Edison moved his company, Edison Machine Works, to Schenectady. Six years later, he merged with his competitor, the Thomas-Houston Company, to form the General Electric Company. It was a serendipitous chain of events that brought Mr. Edison to what would later be known, due to his contributions there, as “The City that Lights and Hauls the World.” Mr. Edison wanted to expand out of Manhattan. His sent his representatives on the lookout for available property in places with cheaper land and labor. One of his scouts, Harry Livor, was on a train to Amsterdam, N.Y., and happened to see two vacant buildings in Schenectady.

General Electric

Photo: "GE - Schenectady, NY" by rik-shaw 黄包车 is licensed under CC BY 2.0

A mere $7,500 almost prevented Schenectady’s connection to the GE story. Chris Hunter, curator of collections and exhibitions at the Museum of Innovation and Science (miSci), formerly the Schenectady Museum, tells the “7,500 Story” with great interest. As the story goes, a former employee of Ellis Locomotive Works by the name of Walter McQueen had a falling out with the company’s president. Afterward, he tried to create his own company and commissioned the two buildings in question. When construction was nearly completed, his financial backer, Charles Stanford, suddenly died. Mr. Stanford’s estates wanted $45,000 for the two buildings, but Mr. Edison would only pay what he believed the property was worth: $37,500. Knowing that Edison Machine Works could mean big business for Schenectady, Col. Robert Furman and a few private citizens came up with the extra $7,500. The Capital-Saratoga Region presented a perfect location for Mr. Edison because it was a transportation hub with the necessary canals and roadways. From GE’s founding, the company has been integral to Schenectady. It provided lights for the city’s fire trucks, two-way radios for the police force and in 1926, when the first home refrigerators were introduced, the first few hundred were sold to people in Schenectady. As GE has grown, so too has Schenectady. In 1886, the year of GE’s establishment in Schenectady, approximately 13,000 people lived in the city. By 1900 the population had more than doubled to 30,000. “GE transformed Schenectady from a largely agricultural area to a top industrial manufacturer in the world,” says Mr. Hunter. miSci has an archive of GE content, including 1.6 million photographs. Old black and whites show those first two GE buildings surrounded by open land, Mr. Edison with his team of innovators and the first steam turbines.

In addition to Mr. Edison’s legacy as an inventor, GE boasts two Nobel Prize laureates: Irving Langmuir (1932), assistant director of the Research Laboratory, and Ivar Giaever (1973), a physicist for GE Corporate Research and Development. Other major players from GE’s past include Ernst Alexanderson, who developed equipment for the first radio broadcast and first home TV, and Charles Steinmetz, who was one of the top designers of streetcar and industrial motors as well as electricity generators. Mr. Hunter’s favorite GE legend is William Coolidge, because he transitioned from a researcher who developed the tungsten incandescent lamp and the X-ray tube, to an executive.

Perhaps one of GE’s largest contributions to science and industry came from Mr. Steinmetz, who convinced GE leadership to invest in a research laboratory. That legacy lives on in its Global Research Center. It has 3,000 employees in locations around the world, including India, Singapore, China, Germany and its headquarters in Niskayuna, N.Y., just a few miles from GE’s Schenectady campus. One of Jeff Immelt’s first acts when he became chairman and CEO in 2001 was to announce the renovation of GE’s research lab in Niskayuna. The initiative cost $150 million and added 200,000 square feet of new space. GE’s first lab was started in December 1900 in the carriage house of Mr. Steinmetz’s backyard. It burned down in February 1901 and was moved onto the current GE campus. There are now 2,000 employees at the Niskayuna facility with scientists and engineers from all disciplines, representing 68 different countries. “It’s a unique vantage point to see the company from because we do research and development for all GE’s businesses,” said Todd Alhart, spokesperson for GE Global Research. He says there have been three main business expansions in the Capital-Saratoga Region over the last 10 years: its digital X-ray detector production facility in Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s tech park, its renewable energy wind business and its battery business in Schenectady, which elicited a visit from President Barack Obama in 2011. Mr. Alhart says it’s that kind of commitment to innovation that has led GE to create 1,400 new jobs in the Capital-Saratoga Region over the past four years. “In the last decade in particular, we’ve really experienced a renaissance here,” Mr. Alhart says. More than 100 years after its humble beginning, started by an American inventor, one can still see GE’s presence in Schenectady, its logo and company name prominently sitting atop Building 37.

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