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The Birth of General Electric


1868 — Thomas Alva Edison becomes a telegraph operator in the main Western Union office in Boston and files his first patent application for an automatic vote recorder for legislatures.

1871 — Edison devises several important improvements in stock ticker technology.

1874 — Edison invents the quadruplex telegraph for Western Union, which transmits four messages simultaneously (two in each direction).

 ■ 1876 — Edison moves to Menlo Park, New Jersey, and establishes his first full-scale industrial research laboratory, combining electrical and chemical laboratories with an experimental machine shop.

 ■ 1877 — Edison invents the carbon transmitter, a crucial improvement in telephone technology, and the phonograph, which he demonstrates at the offices of Scientific American.

1879 — Edison invents the carbon-filament lamp and a direct-current generator for incandescent electric lighting.  A New Year's Eve demonstration of his system is held for the public at Menlo Park.

 ■ 1888 — Edison engages in a "war of the currents" with George Westinghouse and inventor Nikola Tesla as he challenges the safety of the new alternating-current electric systems with evidence from animal electrocutions conducted at his laboratory.

 ■ 1890 — William Kemmler becomes the first man executed with an electric chair.

 ■ 1892 — The Thomson-Houston Company and Edison General Electric merge to form General Electric. 

Jeffrey Immelt — A Company Man

Jeffrey R. Immelt, 55, is Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer of the General Electric Company. Based in Fairfield, Connecticut, GE is the world’s biggest maker of power-generation equipment, jet engines, locomotives and medical-imaging machines. GE power-generation equipment provides one-third of the world’s electricity. In 2010, Forbes ranked GE as the world's second largest company after JPMorgan Chase, based on a formula that compared the total sales, profits, assets, and market value of several multinational companies. The company has 287,000 employees around the world.

Immelt joined GE in corporate marketing in 1982 after receiving a degree in applied mathematics from Dartmouth College and an MBA from Harvard University.

He then held a series of leadership positions with GE Plastics in sales, marketing and global product development. He became a vice president in 1989, responsible for consumer services for GE Appliances. He subsequently became vice president of worldwide marketing product management for GE Appliances in 1991, vice president and general manager of GE Plastics Americas commercial division in 1992, and vice president and general manager of GE Plastics Americas in 1993.

He became senior vice president of GE and president and chief executive officer of GE Medical Systems in 1996, president and chairman-elect in 2000, and chairman and chief executive officer in 2001.

He is a director of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, a trustee of Dartmouth.

A Green Advocate

Immelt helps lead the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, a coalition of companies and environmental groups that favor stalled legislation that would establish a cap-and-trade system based on carbon-emission credits.

He’s urged federal regulation in part so manufacturers can build to uniform specifications. “The rest of the world is moving 10 times faster than we are,” Immelt said, adding that the U.S. is “reddish” in areas such as demand and on public policies aimed at spurring clean-energy technologies because policy makers get caught up in a debate on climate.

The GE Energy Infrastructure division includes gas, wind, steam, nuclear, smart-meters and transmission equipment as well as oil-and-gas exploration machinery.

In July, GE called for entries in a 10-week contest to speed updates of global power grids, promising investment and marketing help for the best submissions from a $200 million fund. The company is spending about $10 billion on environmentally friendly products by 2015 through Immelt’s “ecomagination” program, which was established in 2005.

Immelt is positioning Fairfield, Connecticut-based GE to benefit from more energy-efficient technologies by producing batteries, car-charging stations and smart-grid systems. GE said it’s in a “strong position” to help 65,000 leasing customers convert to electric vehicles and sees the electric-car market adding as much as $500 million in sales in the next three years.

Last year Immelt announced that GE will buy 25,000 electric vehicles, almost half of them from General Motors Co., by 2015. The biggest such order ever, the purchase will account for at least half of GE’s 30,000-car fleet and will include vehicles customers can lease from its GE Capital unit. GM’s portion of the order is for 12,000 vehicles including the 2011 Chevrolet Volt.

Obama Picks Immelt

In January, President  Obama named Immelt to head his outside panel of economic advisers, replacing former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker.

In announcing Immelt’s appointment to take the helm of the newly renamed President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, Obama said the economy is “in a different place” from where it was during the financial crisis when Volcker was brought on, and new ideas are needed to keep the momentum going.

Immelt is an original member of the panel, which was formed as the President’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board in February 2009.

The Future

In January, Immelt wrote an editorial, “A Blueprint For Keeping America Competitive,” for The Washington Post. In it, he explained the areas the U.S needs to focus on:

► Manufacturing and exports: We need a coordinated commitment among business, labor and government to expand our manufacturing base and increase exports. The assumption made by many that the United States could transition from a technology-based, export-oriented economic powerhouse to a services-led, consumption-based economy without any serious loss of jobs, prosperity or prestige was fundamentally wrong. But there is nothing inevitable about America's declining manufacturing competitiveness if we work together to reverse it. For example, we have returned many GE appliance manufacturing jobs to the States by collaborating with our unions and making our operations more efficient.

► Free trade: America cannot expand its manufacturing base without greatly increasing the volume of goods it sells overseas. That is why I applaud the free-trade agreement recently concluded between the United States and South Korea, which will eliminate barriers to U.S. exports and support export-oriented jobs. We should seek to conclude trade and investment agreements with other fast-growing markets and modernize our systems for export finance and trade control. Those who advocate increasing domestic manufacturing jobs by erecting trade barriers have it exactly wrong.

► Innovation: Businesses should invest more of their cash and resources in advanced products and technologies that will create jobs in the United States, and government should incentivize this investment in innovation. Today, GE is investing more than ever in research and development — about 6 percent of revenue — aimed at solving challenges in transportation, energy and health care. As one of America's largest exporters, GE remains committed to producing more products in the United States, which is our home and largest market. In the past two years, GE has created about 6,000 manufacturing jobs in the States, many resulting from investments in innovations such as advanced batteries, which we will make at our 100-year-old plant in Schenectady, N.Y.

Phil Robertson, Editor