Once the buzz and jubilance of the New Year celebrations are over, January is a month known for darkness, calm, and perhaps a touch of dreariness. Here in Maryland, these last weeks have been the coldest we’ve had for quite some time.
Though it is certainly dark and cold, January has an important date of celebration for the town of Roselle, New Jersey. On January 19, 1883, during this gloomy time of year, many of Roselle’s streets, homes, businesses, and the railway station shone with brilliant electric light by incandescent lightbulb for the first time. This was not just a first for Roselle, but for any town, anywhere. Thomas Edison chose Roselle as the location for his experiment in which he set out to prove that a town could be lit by electricity from a single generator, and it was a success. It must have been an awe-inspiring sight for the townspeople.
I imagine that many were excited, though I also wonder if there was trepidation in the town that day for this new technology making such a dramatic appearance in their daily lives. Perhaps some were like Maggie Smith’s character the Dowager Countess in Downton Abbey, reacting to an electric candelabra - “Such a glare!”
Electricity was first introduced as a public amenity in the form of dynamo arc lamps, which are quite different from incandescent lights. The first arc lamp demonstration occurred in Ohio in 1879 by its inventor, Charles F. Brush, and the town of Wabash became the first town to be lit by electricity in 1880, but the dynamo arc light was eventually replaced by incandescent lighting. The dynamo arc lights had problems such as: hissing and flickering, harsh light, carbon monoxide emissions (making them a poor choice for indoor lighting) and production of UV-A, -B, and -C rays, and radio frequency interference. Some improvements were made to arc lights throughout the 1880s and 1890s, such as Nikola Tesla’s 1891 patent “Method of Operating Arc-Lamps,” which helped lessen the unpleasant sound of the lights. Thomson-Houston Electric, the company controlling the patents for arc lights and street lighting, competitively pushed for arc lights to dominate urban street lighting. This continued until the turn of the century, when Thomas-Houston Electric merged with Thomas Edison’s company to form the General Electric Company. By 1911, following innovations that improved the use of tungsten filaments in incandescents in 1907 and 1911, incandescent lighting became the most popular choice for urban street lighting.
Throughout its history, the General Electric Company produced incredible amounts of research, inventions, and patents in a wide variety of fields. For this Photos of the Month, let’s explore some of the many images of General Electric in the Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.
Okay, this first photo is not specifically from General Electric, but it is relevant and such a visually interesting 3D image of Edison that I had to include it. Thomas Edison (1847-1931) did not invent the incandescent lightbulb; rather, his innovations with the light bulb made them much longer-lasting and more efficient than the light bulbs that preceded his. His patent of the light bulb was so far-reaching because it was practical. There is much more interesting history surrounding Edison and his many inventions, but too much to go into here!
Charles Steinmetz’s (1865-1923) first laboratory at General Electric challenged my view of what a laboratory can look like. I might have guessed that it was a farmhouse. Charles Steinmetz’s research at General Electric greatly advanced understanding of lightning, and he purportedly had the nickname “Forger of Thunderbolts.”
This image was taken on the day of Lord Kelvin's visit to the Schenectady works of General Electric. It’s incredible to me that Lord and Lady Kelvin could have visited General Electric, especially considering that Lord Kelvin only lived to 1907. Front row beginning at the left: A. L. Rohrer, George E. Emmons, Charles P. Steinmetz, Elihu Thomson, Lady Kelvin, Lord Kelvin, Spencer Trask, Ogden Mills and George Foster Peabody, the last three being on the board of directors at that time. Edwin W. Rice is between Professor Thomson and Lady Kelvin, and Eugene Griffin is visible between Lord and Lady Kelvin; others unidentified.
Katharine Burr Blodgett (1898 - 1979) was a physicist and chemist who worked at the General Electric Research lab in Schenectady, New York. Her research on methods for working with monomolecular coatings led to improvements for eyeglasses, poison gas absorbents, aircraft materials, camera lenses, and more. Katharine Blodgett was also born in January!
Safely shielded from radiation: Two General Electric engineers in a reactor control room at the Hanford atomic plant examine a television screen's image during a routine check of reactor equipment located in a highly radioactive area of the plant. The now-decommissioned Hanford Site in Washington state was a nuclear production complex that provided plutonium for some of the nuclear tests and bombs during World War II. General Electric took over operations of the facility for a brief period in 1946 before it passed to the Atomic Energy Commision in 1947.
We’re back to the New York facility for this image. I’m a sucker for people in machines at unusual angles. This image bears the caption with text courtesy General Electric Research and Development Center press release, February 9, 1971: "General Electric's Man-Made (T) diamonds are made in presses like this one. Dr. Francis P. Bundy, a member of the original team of diamond-making scientists at the GE Research and Development Center, examines the die that forms the heart of the high-pressure, high-temperature system."
Again, we have a remarkable shot of Francis Bundy with equipment, and this time, Keh-Jim Dunn balances the right hand side of the photo. I wish we had more information about the equipment they are working with. If you have an idea, please comment on this post or email [email protected].