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Outlook 2013: From TV to lamps, Schenectady has a rich past in innovations

Saturday, February 16, 2013
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General Electric engineer Ernst Alexanderson watches the first demonstration of a home television with his family in his Schenectady house on Jan. 13, 1928.  The television, which operated using a mechanical spinning disk, featured a screen only 3 inches in diameter. (Photo provided)
General Electric engineer Ernst Alexanderson watches the first demonstration of a home television with his family in his Schenectady house on Jan. 13, 1928. The television, which operated using a mechanical spinning disk, featured a screen only 3 inches in diameter. (Photo provided)

— If Schenectady isn’t the birthplace of every modern day appliance we now take for granted, it’s at least the place where many of them grew to maturation.

The radio, the television, the lamp, and the refrigerator, to name just a few, were all improved and made more accessible to the public by the General Electric Co. in Schenectady, where innovation by curious scientists has been a staple for over a century.

For miSci curator and archivist Chris Hunter, researching and chronicling Schenectady’s contribution to man’s march of progress is not only his profession, but his passion.

“It’s amazing what’s gone on in Schenectady,” said Hunter. “You could write a book — you could write several books — about it. Even before GE you had [Union College president] Eliphalet Nott inventing the stove in the 1830s, and then Walter McQueen building engines that were especially well thought of for the Schenectady Locomotive Works. The great thing is that same kind of innovation is still going on today.”

Much of GE’s contribution can be directly connected to the General Electric Research Laboratory, now referred to as GE Global Research. It was founded in 1900 initially through the efforts of Willis R. Whitney, a chemist. It was Thomas Edison who brought his electrical company to Schenectady in 1886 and helped create GE, while German electrical engineer Charles Steinmetz, the “wizard of Schenectady,” was its most prominent scientist in the first two decades of the 20th century. A bit later, Irving Langmuir earned a Nobel Prize while working at GE in 1932, an accomplishment matched by Ivar Giaever in 1971. The list of innovators goes on and on, and includes Walter Baker and his work with early television sound systems, Katharine Burr Blodgett, the first female scientist hired by GE and a pioneer in the field of low-reflectance “invisible” glass, and Christian Steenstrup, inventor of the hermetically sealed refrigerator. As valuable as all those individuals were to the overwhelming success enjoyed by GE, Hunter thinks it’s impossible to overlook the real and tangible contributions made by William D. Coolidge and Ernst Alexanderson.

A native of Hudson, Mass., and a graduate of MIT, Coolidge developed ductile tungsten in 1911, greatly increasing the value of lamps and their efficiency. Then, just two years later in 1913, he invented the Coolidge tube, greatly enhancing the proficiency of the X-ray machine.

“He gave the world a lamp that lasted a lot longer and did not burn out so easily,” Hunter said of Coolidge. “It became much cheaper to produce, and GE ended up selling millions of lamps. Then he applied what he had learned from working with lamps to the X-ray machine, and he ended up making major improvements to X-ray tubes. And, if not all of these items were produced in Schenectady, at least people were using more electricity, and that meant that electrical companies needed to buy more power generating equipment which was produced right here in Schenectady.”

broadcast STRIDES

While Coolidge was a physicist by trade, Alexanderson was an electrical engineer who made great strides in the fields of radio and television.

“Alexanderson comes here from Sweden in 1903 to work with Steinmetz, and they begin making improvements to railway motors that were on the street cars here,” said Hunter. “Then GE gets a request from a Canadian-born engineer, Reginald Fessenden, to build an alternator for radio signal transmissions, and it’s Alexanderson who takes care of the engineering for that project.”

The work done by Alexanderson in broadcasting radio signals became a useful tool in the effort to defeat Germany during World War I.

“The Germans had been cutting the transmission cables across the Atlantic, so it was Alexanderson who helped create the first wireless transmission, which became critical during that time period,” said Hunter.

“Through his work, the radio signals became more powerful and efficient, and these were the alternators Fessenden was experimenting, which led him to do voice transmissions.”

Alexanderson’s efforts also helped create what was basically the first fax machine, but his most memorable work came in the field of television. On Jan. 13, 1928, he hosted the first demonstration of how television can come into the home at his house on Adams Road in the GE Realty Plot, and in 1930 he oversees a big production at Proctors in downtown Schenectady, illustrating TV’s limitless possibilities.

“It was a big event held over three days, and according to the accounts I’ve seen it attracted thousands of people to Proctors,” said Hunter. “They had a vaudeville comedy duo, with one person on the Proctors stage and the other back in the GE studio. They had a full orchestra at Proctors, being led by a conductor who was also back at the studio. The idea was to show how the timing didn’t effect the comedy act, and the picture was clear enough that the orchestra could see the conductor and follow him.”

Coincidentally, both Coolidge and Alexanderson lived long lives. Coolidge retired from the GE in 1945 but stayed on as a consultant for quite some time and died in 1975 at the age of 101. Alexanderson also died in 1975 at the age of 97.

WRGB a pioneer

While Alexanderson gets a well-deserved bulk of the credit for the success of the television, there were other forward-thinking individuals ready to take the ball and run with it, such as those in the entertainment industry.

“WRGB was the only station in the country that kept up a regular programming schedule during World War II,” said Hunter. “It was a mixture of news and movies and different kinds of programming. The Schenectady Light Opera Company came to the studios and did an opera, and the Russell Sage Theatre department was brought in and performed a version of ‘Alice in Wonderland.’ They had puppet shows, billiards and professional wrestling.”

There were 300 television sets up and running in the Schenectady area during World War II according to Hunter, and that number didn’t dramatically increase until the war was over.

“When Walter Baker and his team introduced their new sound system at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, that’s what started putting televisions in private homes,” said Hunter. “But GE wasn’t allowed to manufacture televisions during the war, so there wasn’t a big increase in sales until the war was over.”

And yes, to help pay for the television and the entertainment produced by it, there were plenty of commercials.

“A lot of the early programming involved experiments with television commercials,” said Hunter. “GE began working with an advertising agency in New York City, and together they produced the first commercials.”

To read all the stories from the 2013 Outlook special report, click here.

 
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