This is the last in a series of posts entitled Technology for Good: A Historical Perspective From GE. Last week, GE released all their annual reports in one interactive data visualization. This data viz pulls together 120 years of their annual reports, showcasing GE’s long-standing tradition of technology for good. Learn more about GE’s history of innovation and see GE’s new Data Visualization in action. GE is a 3p Sponsor.
“The occupation of our new office building enabled us to devote about 40,000 square feet in the old office building to manufacturing purposes.”
– GE Annual Report, 1902
Both GE’s size and scope of its manufacturing have grown exponentially beyond the company’s manufacturing plant expansion in Schenectady, New York 110 years ago. Beyond the size of its manufacturing facilities across the globe, the company has had an enormous impact on just about every manufactured item we can see or touch today.
A hundred years ago, two developments would lead to what is now a completely different way we both make things and communicate. In 1912, GE scientists created a resin that could be used as insulation material. That same year the company’s engineers invented the vacuum tube. The first led to a vastly different way in which we build and shape items; the second led to a communications revolution with radio, television and of course, now, the internet.
100 Years of Plastic
The first applications for plastic after GE’s first such invention was for its use as an insulator against heat. A few years after GE created that initial plastic resin, the company’s scientists patented Calrod, an electrically insulating and heat conducting ceramic that made electric stoves safer. Calrod, usually called tubular, is still used in countless products today for its strength and reliability as a heating element. The quest for new manufacturing materials led to GE’s launch of its silicone business in 1940, and to this day the material is used in everything from aquariums to electronics.
Plastic became part of Americans’ daily life after GE patented its first moldable plastic material in 1930. Until then plastic was only thought to be fit for industrial use. But now it could be shaped into items for household and office purposes. Decades later, plastics and resins took on new high tech forms and applications. One GE innovation was Lexan SLX, a color infused resin patented in 2000 that made it easier it easier to repair cars.
GE’s latest coating is a combination of nanotechnology and biomimicry. In 2008, GE scientists invented superhydrophobic nano-coatings, which was inspired by the waxy layer on lotus leaves that strongly repels water. The compound, for example, can help wind turbine blades avoid icy buildup. GE’s legacy of plastic innovation a century after its first release is the ability to manufacture goods that are stronger and lighter, and in the medical field, prevent the spread of infectious diseases. The company has also led with the handling of plastic at the end of its lifecycle. A partnership with Appliance Recycling Centers of America salvages plastics out of unwanted appliances, reducing the amount that otherwise would end up in a landfill. GE is spending more on greener product development, too.
From Vacuum Tubes to Fiber Optics
The vacuum tube, meanwhile, changed how Americans spent their leisure time and how they communicated with one another over long distances. In 1922 radio station WGY in Schenectady was one of the first stations in the country to broadcast regularly scheduled programming via a 1500-watt transmitter. Just five years later, Schenectady hosted the first television reception in a local residence. In 1928, television station WGY started a programming schedule three days a week. Decades later in the late 1970s, GE marketed what may now seem antiquated but made a difference in the millions of lives of students and office workers: a digital clock radio that allowed users to wake up to music or alarms at any time, reliably.
In 1981 GE researchers discovered a new way of transmitting information that would revamp the way in which we all communicate and consume content: fiber optics. GE lighting produced quartz ingots, three feet long, that could be stretched into fiber optics strands 25 miles in length. The cell phone networks and internet infrastructure on which we all depend today were well on their way.
From the jet age to the space age and now the age of the internet, GE has had an enormous presence in how we do things. Communicating, moving and building are now easier, faster and stronger because of the strong culture of innovation that is interwoven in all of GE’s business units, on every continent of the world. The vacuum tube may be gone and the incandescent bulb is on its way out, but the spirit of discovery has kept GE a leading American and global icon in the 21st century.
Leon Kaye, a history and international business major, is a journalist, sustainability consultant and the editor of GreenGoPost.com. He also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business and Inhabitat. You can follow him on Twitter.
Photo courtesy GE.