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A Bit of Schenectady History: Thomas Edison and General Electric

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Thomas Edison and General Electric in Schenectady

Thomas EdisonWhen we think of GE, the General Electric Company, we are likely to think of former CEO Jack Welch and his extravagant bonuses, retirement perks and business models, or current CEO Jeff Immelt and his position as President Obama’s top advisor on national job creation. The company’s opulent corporate headquarters in Fairfield, Connecticut is the heart of the world’s sixteenth largest company (according to the latest statistics published by Forbes). The plant in Schenectady may seem like just another factory, but it is the site at which GE first, and remains today, officially incorporated.

I’m often amazed that more people don’t know that Thomas Edison was the leading founder of the General Electric Company. Perhaps many know him more for his accomplishments as an inventor, often associating him with the invention of a more efficient household light bulb and his innovation of modern electrical stations, most notably in Manhattan. He may have never served as the company’s CEO, but if GE’s inception is proof of anything, it’s Edison’s largely downplayed prowess as an entrepreneur.

Growing up in the Midwest during the mid 1800s, Edison received his education at the Cooper Union College in New York City, basing his career in the northern New Jersey area after graduation. A resident of Menlo Park, he was famously dubbed by local residents as the “Wizard of Menlo Park,” and considering electricity’s unfamiliarity with the public at the time, Edison might as well have been a contemporary Harry Potter. His first major invention was the phonograph, the first recording and speaking device of its time, and was invented and sold under the “Edison Phonograph Speaking Company.”

But what brought Edison to fame and eventually the “Edison General Electric Company” was his invention of an incandescent light bulb. Contrary to popular lore, Edison did not invent the first light bulb but improved on the original model that could only burn for 150 hours, as compared to his own innovation that could last for almost 1500 hours. Here, an opportunity for entrepreneurship was sown. A few years later, Edison opened his first factory in Menlo Park exclusively for his patented lamps and light bulbs. With an expanding market for electricity, he was commissioned to build and design the first electrical stations and grids in New York City, along with inventing the first electrical generators.

Combining all his ventures into one entity, the “Edison General Electric Company” was incorporated in 1890. By then, factories producing Edison’s inventions grew out of northern New Jersey and popped up across the northeast, including a factory in Fort Wayne, Indiana, that manufactured another popular Edison invention: the electric fan. But the most significant plant opened up north in Schenectady, along the Erie Canal on the site of an old factory that manufactured trains and coaches.

Meanwhile, the Thomas-Houston Company became Edison’s main competition in the northeast. But given the tremendous opportunities for innovation, a merger between the two firms would prove highly advantageous. In 1892, the General Electric Company was officially incorporated between the two companies in Schenectady, NY. According to a video made by the Edison Tech Center, labor union unrest in New York City had pushed the company’s headquarters up north to seek a new work force. The effect of the move was immediate: the population of Schenectady swelled from 13,000 in 1880 to 30,000 in 1900.

The site in Schenectady has been home to its share of historical events. The first laboratory in the United States to be solely dedicated to scientific research was opened at the GE plant in 1900.

On September 11, 1928, The Queen’s Messenger, the world’s first live televised drama, was sent over the airwaves from GE’s WGY radio station known as “WGY Television” (now 103.1 FM WGY News Talk), under the call letters W2XB (now WRGB, Channel 6) to receivers as far away as Los Angeles.

While no longer the company headquarters, today the plant continues production of turbines, a role the factory assumed during World War II, and is the company’s largest producer of energy products. (On a less technical note, the Schenectady campus is the only place in America with the zip code 12345.) In a few years, the Schenectady campus will be home to the company’s new advanced battery manufacturing facility.

Michael Koester is a Contributor to The Free George.

The Free George is the online magazine and visitors’ guide of Upstate NY, covering things from Albany to Lake Placid, including Saratoga, the Lake George region and the Adirondacks. Check out our City Blogs section for our extended coverage areas as well.

Short URL: http://thefreegeorge.com/thefreegeorge/?p=14238

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