General Electric

The first conglomerate in history, the General Electric Company has led the way in the development of breakthrough technologies and services that have had an impact on nearly every facet of contemporary life

In 1876, inventor Thomas Alva Edison, Thomas AlvaEdison opened his laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey, where he invented the incandescent electric lamp. The most influential invention of the time, it became the basis for his electrical business. He was also involved in various other enterprises, including transportation, industrial products, power transmission, and medical equipment. In 1890, Edison combined all his businesses and formed the Edison General Electric Company.General Electric

In 1879, Edwin J. Huston and Elihu Thomson formed the Thomson-Huston Electric Company, which became Edison’s major competitor. In 1892, Edison General Electric and Thomson-Huston merged to become the General Electric Company (GE) with headquarters in Schenectady, New York. The rapid growth of General Electric earned it a place as one of the twelve original organizations listed on the Dow Jones Industrial Average when the index was first formed in 1896.

General Electric expanded through mergers, acquisitions, and reorganizations. In 1911, General Electric acquired the National Electric Lamp Association (NELA) in Cleveland, Ohio. The business was located in Nela Park, which became the first industrial park in the United States. In 1919, General Electric and American Telegraph and Telephone Company (AT&T) partnered to launch the Radio Corporation of America (RCA). In 1930, General Electric formed its plastics department, and in 1932, the company introduced the first garbage disposal. General Electric transformed the aviation business with the development of the first American jet engine in 1942.

This GE photograph from around 1908 shows two women using the company’s toaster, coffee pot, and egg poacher.

(Library of Congress)

One of the leaders in cutting-edge technology, General Electric was numbered among the major computer companies during the 1960’s. In 1986, General Electric reacquired RCA in order to obtain the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) television network. The acquisition was a precursor to the 2004 purchase of Vivendi Universal Entertainment’s television and film divisions. The newly formed corporation became NBC Universal, the third-largest media company in the world.

General Electric has been led by many notable chief executive officers, but the most influential was Jack Welch, JackWelch, who was the chief executive officer from 1981 until his retirement in 2001. Welch systematically cut waste, shut down nonperforming units, and transformed General Electric’s corporate culture. He was criticized for what some perceived to be harsh methods. His innovative strategies, however, were later adopted by other corporate leaders as they sought to streamline their own operations to cut costs and increase profits.

General Electric is one of the best-known brands in the world, with many top-performing divisions, including GE Capital, GE Technology Infrastructure, GE Infrastructure, and NBC Universal. ITT, Westinghouse, Tyco, and other well-known conglomerates have tried to imitate General Electric’s business model, but have not been as successful.

Further Reading

  • Gorowitz, Bernard. The General Electric Story: A Heritage of Innovation, 1876-1999. Schenectady, N.Y.: Schenectady Museum, 1999.
  • O’Boyle, Thomas F. At Any Cost: Jack Welch, General Electric, and the Pursuit of Profit. New York: Vintage Books, 1999.
  • Rothschild, William E. The Secret to GE’s Success: A Former Insider Reveals the Leadership Lessons of the World’s Most Competitive Company. New York: McGraw Hill, 2007.

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