The story of General Electric has always been a Massachusetts story.
There's been no shortage of superlatives this week after news broke that General Electric is moving its global headquarters form Connecticut to Boston. The Boston Globe called it "better than the Olympics." Mayor Marty Walsh described it as the city's own Powerball win. And while headlines abound describe the move as "a big win" and "a game changer," here's another word for it: "homecoming."
In the 1890s two of the country’s leading electric companies were Thomas Edison’s General Electric Co. of New York and the Thomson Houston Co. of Lynn, Massachusetts.
"These people are competing against each other, patents are driving each other crazy, they’re suing each other—not much different than today, you know," said longtime GE employee and official historian of GE’s Lynn plant, David Carpenter.
So in 1892 the two companies merged and General Electric was born. Despite being the smaller of the two companies, the Thomson-Houston folks in Lynn were the more profitable operation and named their man GE’s first president.
"These were really shrewd Yankees, these Thomson-Houston people—they knew how to squeeze a nickel," Carpenter said.
By 1896, as GE was taking its place as one of the 12 stocks that constituted the original Dow Jones Industrial average, Lynn’s lead scientist, Elihu Thomson, was tinkering, developing—among many other things—one of the first X-Ray machines, launching GE into the medical business, a division that today employs more than 50,000 people in more than 100 countries.
In the early part of 20th century, GE’s Lynn plant was turning out everything from trolley motors to steam generators, but when World War I broke out, they turned their attention to aviation, racing to push Allied aircraft higher than the enemy’s with their turbo superchargers.
"It basically lets you go up to 10,000, 15,000 feet and your engine thinks you’re at sea level because the air is not thin any longer," Carpenter said.
By the time the GE gang in Lynn had worked out the kinks, the Great War was coming to a close, but the turbo supercharger was here to stay.
"GE still got—as they do today—contracts to improve it and refine it such that by the time World War II started we were in the turbo supercharger business and literally made over 100,000 of them for the P-38 and B-17 bombers and all that kind of stuff," Carpenter said.
It was during that Second World War, that the U.S. government—and our allies in England, on the cusp of a breakthrough—turned to the folks at GE in Lynn to once again completely transform aviation.
"The British agreed to send over the patents and a model and so GE got picked to make that, we made the first jet engine, and the rest is history," Carpenter said.
Following the war, GE’s public face increasingly became their consumer products, from dishwashers to hair dryers, thanks in large part to their investment in radio and TV networks—and shrewd marketing, including employing spokespeople like future President Ronald Reagan.
Yet in Lynn, they stuck to the company’s roots: industrial-sized innovation, power and products.
"We made crank cases for the automobile industry, we made searchlights, all kinds of instrumentation for aviation, we made railroad wheels, we made street lighting there," Carpenter said. "We had one of the biggest buildings in the world making electric motors at one time."
Of course with industrial-sized dreams can come industrial-sized problems. By the 1970s, a GE plant in Pittsfield had heavily polluted the Housatonic River, and the company is still in a battle today over its cleanup. In the 1980s and 1990s, GE grew into a highly-diversified global behemoth under legendary CEO Jack Welch, a Peabody native and University of Massachusetts Amherst grad.
In Lynn, the work has never stopped. They made fuel cells for the Gemini spacecraft and jet engines galore. Today, their signature product is the T-700, the engine that powers the legendary Apache and Black Hawk helicopters.
"That engine, the T-700, which we just shipped our 20,000th engine about two months ago, that really changed the world," Carpenter said.
Changing the world is what Carpenter says GE has always been about. And he believes there is no better place for the company to ensure they will continue to do just that—than right here in the Bay State.
"I kind of grew up with GE in its core," Carpenter said. "We made big stuff. And I think they’re their getting back to where they were. We’re reinvesting and now we’re reinvesting close to our original home, you know."
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