Introduction to Technology for Good: A Historical Perspective From GE

This is the first in a series of posts entitled Technology for Good: A Historical Perspective From GE.  Last week, GE released all their of annual reports in one interactive data visualization.  This interactive data viz app  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.

GE's Model D-12 toaster, ca. 1910
GE's Model D-12 toaster, ca. 1910

In 1912, GE was one of America’s ten largest companies. Now 100 years later, the other nine companies on that list have long disappeared either through bankruptcy or mergers. But GE has always stood strong: currently the company is ranked sixth in the fortune 500, ahead of GM and Ford Motors. It was among the 12 original companies listed on the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) in 1896 and remains the only original one on the index. What started as Thomas Edison’s idea to organize his business interests under one company is now a global giant in manufacturing, innovation and sustainability.

For decades GE has played a role in building the United States’ economy and culture with everything from the light bulb to electric fans to vacuum tubes.

They’ve also innovated. The company launched a commercial finance division at a time when it was assumed that function was best left to banks. Decades later, GE sponsored a television show with Ronald Reagan as its host that launched his eventual ascendancy to President. Later the company became a fixture in the broadcasting industry and then was the first Fortune 500 company outside of the computer industry to launch a web site.

With today’s release of its annual report, GE will also launch an interactive web portal with the contents of each annual report issued since 1892. GE has also launched a data visualization tool that shows how the $147 billion firm has paired science with design over the years. Now visitors can explore GE’s technology and history through exploration of each annual report in a remarkably interactive application.

A simple start…  

One way in which GE has touched the lives of billions is through a device we regularly use with little thought: the toaster. For centuries, the conventional way to start the morning was to spear a piece of bread on a long spear, fork or grill–great for marshmallows but not necessarily for bread. Contraptions for toasting bread emerged in the 1890s but failed, usually because the wiring melted.

After Edison spent several years developing a wire that could heat without melting in the open air, GE’s first electric toaster was released to market in 1905. A GE technician, Frank Shailor, had the idea to come up with an electric appliance that would allow consumers to eat bread before it went stale. The D-12 toaster was born, twenty years before sliced bread hit the market.

What now appears to be a simple invention is still part and parcel of GE’s culture of innovation. In the 1970s, GE scientist B. Jayant Baliga invented the insulated gate bipolar transistor (IGBT), a power management semiconducting switch that manages the effective flow of electricity. Sparked by a vice president who showed up at the company’s Global Research Center in New York and asked for a way to design a better heat pump, Baliga finalized his invention in one month. Believing the IGBT had applicability in many appliances from toasters to washing machines, he filed for and then was granted a patent in 1980. Today IGBTs are installed in a wide array of technologies from locomotives and aircraft electrical systems to wind turbines and solar inverters. Baliga has calculated that over the past 20 years IGBT-enabled applications reduced the amount of carbon emissions in the United States by 35 trillion pounds and 78 trillion pounds across the globe.

Since Shailor’s invention, other companies have entrenched themselves in the toaster market. While GE still sells branded toasters, the company’s portfolio is an enviable mix of energy, technology and finance. Yet the simple device is never far from its 300,000 employees’ minds as the company continues to push the boundaries of its turbine to toaster portfolio.


Leon Kaye is a journalist, sustainability consultant and the editor of He also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business. You can follow him on Twitter.


Photo courtesy WikiCommons and National Museum of American History.

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010. He has lived across the U.S., as well as in South Korea, Abu Dhabi and Uruguay. Some of Leon's work can also be found in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. You can follow him on Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost).

One response

  1. It’s funny to think of the toaster as innovation, but basically it was at the time.  Essentially it’s the world’s most inefficient light bulb!  Ram electricity through a fat filament to the point where it’s hot enough to toast bread…   I’d love to see GE re-visit the toaster:  find some way to generate that kind of localized heat without so much electricity… or better yet, a toaster oven!

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