General Electric Opens Research Laboratory

The opening of General Electric’s research laboratory marked the integration of science as a fundamental force in American industry and manufacturing.

Summary of Event

The opening of the General Electric (GE) research laboratory in Schenectady, New York, on December 15, 1900, marked the first effort by an American corporation to make science part of its competitive strategy. Faced with innovations in lamp design and materials developed by the competition, GE decided that its survival depended on using scientific talent dedicated to basic research. Adopted as a defensive measure to preserve GE’s dominance in the market, the research lab soon developed a number of new products that would significantly broaden GE’s market. Once seen as a risky and possibly unnecessary venture, the research lab captured a central role in giving GE a major place in the electrical industry. General Electric Company
New York State;General Electric Company
Whitney, Willis R.
Langmuir, Irving
[kw]General Electric Opens Research Laboratory (Dec. 15, 1900)
[kw]Opens Research Laboratory, General Electric (Dec. 15, 1900)
[kw]Laboratory, General Electric Opens Research (Dec. 15, 1900)
General Electric Company
New York State;General Electric Company
Whitney, Willis R.
Langmuir, Irving
[g]United States;Dec. 15, 1900: General Electric Opens Research Laboratory[6560]
[c]Manufacturing;Dec. 15, 1900: General Electric Opens Research Laboratory[6560]
[c]Trade and commerce;Dec. 15, 1900: General Electric Opens Research Laboratory[6560]
[c]Science and technology;Dec. 15, 1900: General Electric Opens Research Laboratory[6560]
Steinmetz, Charles Proteus
Rice, Edwin W., Jr
Coolidge, William David
Coffin, Charles A.

Formed by the merger of Thomson-Houston and Edison General Electric in 1892, GE immediately dominated the lamp Lighting;electric market and looked forward to a profitable future. The company soon confronted hard times, as the 1893 depression crippled the electrical market. Charles A. Coffin, GE’s president, sold millions of dollars of holdings of securities issued by local power companies and significantly trimmed the company’s workforce during the mid- and late 1890’s. Eventually these policies restored GE’s financial stability.

The company faced threats from other quarters. Engaged in one of the first industries based on the combination of science and technology, electrical manufacturers always faced the possibility of innovations undermining their stability. As insurance, GE and the other major electrical manufacturer, Westinghouse Westinghouse Electric Corporation , had exchanged patents on key technology in 1897. This arrangement enabled GE to hold a strong position in the lamp market.

Charles Proteus Steinmetz.

(Library of Congress)

Reluctant to spend money on basic research, GE depended on buying research undertaken by independent inventors. During the 1890’s, for example, GE bought the services and patents of inventors Charles Bradley Bradley, Charles and Ernst Danielson Danielson, Ernst to regain a competitive edge against Westinghouse, which had made advances in a number of key areas. These relationships were always short term, limited in cost, and outside the company’s daily activities. As important, Coffin and others at GE subscribed to the notion that people who engaged in such innovation demonstrated work habits and personality traits ill-suited for the highly structured corporate workplace.

Despite GE’s cautious attitude toward innovation and its practitioners, the company maintained a number of laboratories. These usually focused on testing materials used in manufacturing and in standardizing measurements. Basic long-term research was not part of their mission.

The director of GE’s calculating department, Charles Proteus Steinmetz, Steinmetz, Charles Proteus realized as early as 1897 that his company’s future rested with a research lab. Rebuffed in his early efforts, Steinmetz finally succeeded in winning approval for a research laboratory in 1900. He also grasped the threat posed to GE by work done in Germany on lamp design and materials.

Germany had pioneered research labs during the late nineteenth century. By 1900, the country’s scientists had developed innovations that made gas lamps competitive and had enhanced filaments for incandescent lamps. Both of these innovations challenged GE’s position. In the United States, research on the mercury vapor lamp by Westinghouse-employed Peter Cooper-Hewett also created a potential threat to GE. Supported by Edwin W. Rice Rice, Edwin W., Jr , Jr., the GE vice president responsible for manufacturing and engineering, Steinmetz Steinmetz, Charles Proteus successfully urged that a new GE research lab focus on these threats to GE’s dominance in the market.

Rice contacted Professor Charles R. Cross Cross, Charles R. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Cross, a longtime advocate of applied research, had established close ties with industry. He suggested colleague Willis R. Whitney, who had earned his Ph.D. in physical chemistry at the University of Leipzig. Wedded to the academic environment, Whitney reluctantly agreed to part-time work in the lab. Eventually the demands of his new position forced Whitney to petition for a one-year leave from MIT in August, 1901, a leave that soon became permanent.

Whitney expressed uneasiness over the long-term nature of the lab’s basic research in the light of the company’s cost-conscious administration. He sought ways to justify the lab’s continued existence by using the lab’s resources to assist company engineers in solving production problems. These applied research projects demonstrated the lab’s usefulness and brought visible returns to the company. Whitney broadened this policy to include manufacturing of specialized items including X-ray X rays;tubes and radio Radio;tubes tubes. This activity reached such proportions that GE created the commercial department in 1916 to sell these products.

Whitney maintained a balance between the demands of the corporation and the morale of his staff. He provided a large and growing library of scientific journals and books that served as guides for literature searches by the professional staff members when they began new projects. He urged his scientists, however, to rely on experimentation rather than on scholarly theories that were untested in the marketplace. Whitney also scoured the professional staff reports for results that could pass the scrutiny of patent officials and guarantee GE a lock on new commercial technology. Demanding in many ways, Whitney still made every effort to develop a keen understanding of his staff’s abilities. Above all, he emphasized the cooperative approach, an important notion in a team-based effort. He reinforced this policy by refusing to reward any single person in the case of a successful patent that seemed to promise great profits for GE.

Aware of the academic backgrounds of his scientists, Whitney deliberately retained some elements of a university setting. He actively encouraged independent research and urged publication of his staff’s work once GE attorneys had secured patents or when the research promised no immediate commercial application. Whitney’s own academic commitment was manifest in his associations with professional societies such as the American Chemical Society and the American Electrochemical Society.

Whitney’s university ties proved useful in recruiting talented scientists for GE’s lab. In 1904, he lured the brilliant William D. Coolidge Coolidge, William David from MIT to work on GE’s most pressing problem, that of the tungsten filament. His work produced the ductile tungsten filament, far superior to the more delicate tungsten filament developed in Germany. Patented in 1913, Coolidge’s discovery secured for GE the long-sought dominance in the lamp market and generated a fortune in profits for the company. Coolidge’s work demonstrated conclusively the necessity of basic research in technology-based industries.

Whitney also recruited physical chemist Irving Langmuir from the Stevens Institute of Technology. More than other members of the professional staff, Langmuir showed incredible talents in theoretical work that frequently translated into commercial products. His gas-filled bulb solved the problem of GE’s lightbulbs Lighting;electric blackening after extended use. He also developed a vacuum tube in 1912 that brought GE into the radio Radio;sets market. Langmuir’s achievements earned him the Nobel Nobel Prizes;physics Prize in 1932, the first industrial scientist to merit this prestigious award.

The work of Coolidge, Coolidge, William David Langmuir, and others facilitated the lab’s move from the defensive posture that dominated its early years to a more aggressive product development strategy. The lab’s ongoing research opened up markets in radio, medicine, the military, and consumer appliances. The efforts of GE’s researchers guaranteed the company’s dominance in the electrical industry and made possible the transition from the trial-and-error methods of nineteenth century inventors to the team approach based on high-level skills in chemistry, physics, and engineering.


The confluence of large companies at the end of the nineteenth century and the emergence of a well-educated scientific community created conditions that encouraged the spread of research labs once General Electric had demonstrated its worth in the market. By the early twentieth century, numerous and highly specialized professional societies had appeared in all the areas essential to technology-based companies.

Universities had also developed curricula appropriate to preparing students in these fields. As early as 1882, MIT offered a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, while institutions such as Carnegie Tech devoted their energies to the scientific and technical disciplines. During the late nineteenth century, chemistry Chemistry;education in and physics training grew faster in the United States than in any industrializing country except Germany. These changes occurred at the same time that America’s new corporations demanded scientific training and specialized knowledge acquired only in universities.

Industrial research moved beyond large-scale enterprise by the 1920’s. Individually lacking sufficient capital, smaller companies collectively set up their own labs, usually through the medium of a trade association. Private research facilities also appeared before the end of the decade. These trends made basic research a pervasive part of the American economy. By the 1990’s, thousands of research labs operated throughout American industry, with combined annual budgets in excess of $40 billion.

Further Reading

  • Birr, Kendall. Pioneering in Industrial Research: The Story of the General Electric Research Laboratory. Washington, D.C.: Public Affairs Press, 1957. The first scholarly work on the topic. Provides a good overview of the development of the GE lab and the roles of its participants. The first two chapters outline the background to industrial research and the GE lab.
  • _______. “Science in American Industry.” In Science and Society in the United States, edited by David Van Tassel and Michael G. Hall. Homewood, Ill.: Dorsey Press, 1966. Provides a brief background on the evolution of science and its increasing interaction with industry. Discusses the rise of organized research in the twentieth century.
  • Galambos, Louis. “The American Economy and the Reorganization of the Sources of Knowledge.” In The Organization of Knowledge in Modern America, edited by Alexandra Oleson and John Voss. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979. Includes an effective description of the relationship between science and the rise of large-scale companies.
  • Gorowitz, Bernard, et al., eds. The General Electric Story: A Heritage of Innovation, 1876-1999. 3d ed. Schenectady, N.Y.: Hall of Electrical History, 2000. The third edition of a series of photo histories of General Electric, combined in one volume.
  • Hughes, Thomas P. American Genesis: A Century of Invention and Technological Enthusiasm, 1870-1970. New York: Viking, 1989. A must read for an understanding of technology’s role in American society. Chapter 4 analyzes the appearance of industrial labs in key industries. Good coverage of the GE, AT&T, and Du Pont labs.
  • Kline, Ronald R. Steinmetz: Engineer and Socialist. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992. Provides a detailed account of Steinmetz’s role in the formation of the GE lab and his disagreements with Whitney that led to Steinmetz’s departure. Essential reading to understand much of the immediate background to the creation of the GE lab.
  • Mees, C. E. Kenneth, and John A. Leermakers. The Organization of Industrial Scientific Research. 2d ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1950. Provides invaluable information on the ways research labs were organized and functioned, from finance and building design to patents and associations for industrial research. Includes numerous examples of industrial research labs from many industries.
  • Noble, David F. America by Design: Science, Technology, and the Rise of Corporate Capitalism. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977. A work very critical of the impact of science and technology on American society. Valuable insights into the changes in American industry during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. An effective analysis of the role of patents in scientific research and the importance of universities to industry.
  • Rae, John. “The Application of Science to Industry.” In The Organization of Knowledge in Modern America, 1860-1920, edited by Alexandra Oleson and John Voss. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979. Covers the roles of government and private industry in research.
  • Reich, Leonard S. The Making of American Industrial Research: Science and Business at GE and Bell, 1876-1926. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985. Provides a systematic comparison of the industrial research at GE and Bell. It should be a starting point for anyone interested in understanding the origins and evolution of this process in American industry. An essential work in the field.
  • Wise, George. Willis R. Whitney, General Electric, and the Origins of Industrial Research. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985. Provides an effective analysis of Whitney’s role in the creation of the GE lab. Explains the reasons for Whitney’s decreasing role as an active researcher and highlights his role in the larger scientific community.

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New York State;General Electric Company
Whitney, Willis R.
Langmuir, Irving