Charles Brush was the first inventor to successfully sell lighting equipment in the United States. Brush grew up on a farm outside of Cleveland. He became interested in repairing equipment, and that interest grew to the experimental field of electricity. Like Edison, Brush read everything he could about electricity, and then began his own experiments. He wanted to study electricity in college, but there were no programs in the study of electricity, so Brush studied chemistry and mining. After graduating, he began building his first dynamo generator, which powered a single light.
Brush began installing his small systems across the U.S. and licensing utility companies and cities to use his system for electric street lights. He installed the first electric lights on Broadway in New York City and the first to illuminate Niagara Falls. His street lighting installations ranged from Albany to San Francisco.
Original dynamo electric generator. designed by Charles Brush in 1876. Brush became the first successful inventor in the fledgling electrical industry.
Office and Factory of Telegraph Supply Co 1877 on Champlain Street near Seneca Street in Cleveland, OH
Brush's dynamo was the first successful commercial dynamo and led to the first central stations.
High steel pillar with arc light mounted on top is shown in center foreground. In early days lighting of public square was attempted from only this single tower. In 1951 there were more than 100 lighting fixtures on the same area of this square in Cleveland.
Provided from arc lamps on 150-foot poles. Inauguration ceremonies were held on New Year's Eve, 1882.Pole in photo was located at Main and Temple streets.
Worker changes carbon rods in arc lamp on Dock Street in Schenectady, NY. In background is the cupola of the Westinghouse Agricultural Machinery works.
Brush favored power plants with large numbers of smaller machines, such as this central station in Philadelphia. It features a large switchboard in the background.
Dynamo room, front view of main shaft. N.E. Sherman, Electrician, Carl F. Fog, 1st assistant, Ed Albertson, 2nd assistant are pictured. Location in unknown, but plant uses Brush dynamos.
Albumen photograph print of inventor and electrical pioneer Elihu Thomson. Thomson's early work with dynamos, arc lamps, and alternating-current power made him one of the top inventors of the late 19th century. His Thomson-Houston company merged with the Edison General Electric Company in 1892 to form General Electric.
Sketch of dynamo developed by Elihu Thomson in 1880. Features Thomson's spherical armature.
Elihu Thomson sits on the lowest step of the porch of the boarding house where much of the staff lived in New Britain, CT. E.W. Rice, Jr. is seated above Thomson's left shoulder. Investors convinced Thomson to move to Connecticut and form the American Electric Company in 1880. The business was on the verge of failure in 1883 when Charles Coffin, a shoe factory owner in Lynn, MA took an interest, moved the business to Lynn, and renamed it Thomson-Houston.
Future GE president Edwin W. Rice, Jr., at the age of 11 in 1874. Rice was a student of Thomson's at Central High School in Philadelphia. When Rice graduated in 1880, Thomson offered him a position in his new company.
Portrait photo of E.W. Rice, Jr. during his term as General Electric president from 1914-1922. Rice became Thomson's top assistant and factory manager at American Electric. He continued that role at Thomson-Houston and became an executive at GE.
Charles Coffin, president of Thomson-Houston Electric Company and first president of General Electric. Coffin owned a shoe manufacturing company in Lynn, MA. He took an interest in Thomson and the untapped potential of American Electric. He bought out the investors in American Electric, moved the company to Lynn, and renamed it Thomson-Houston.
Workers and machinery inside one of the Thomson-Houston factory buildings. The new company grew rapidly, adding new product lines and buildings to the factory complex.
Workers pose in front of doors to Thomson-Houston's lamp department building. Many workers are wearing hats, coats, and ties
General Electric staff install a Thomson direct current dynamo generator in Brazil. Thomson quickly began selling his dynamos internationally.
Thomson's earliest sales were for isolated plants. Coffin convinced Thomson to expand his product to include central power stations. This station in Boston shows several of Thomson's direct current dynamos.
The original Thomson-Houston factory building in Lynn, MA, erected by Minot Terrill in 1883 expressly to accommodate Thomson-Houston. Became Factory A of the West Lynn Works of General Electric.
Text ad for Thomson-Houston Electric Company and related companies, including Thomson-Houston Motor Company and Thomson-VandePoele Electric Mining Co.
Early alternating current dynamo and exciter developed by Elihu Thomson. Thomson was among the first to research alternating current electricity. His research began in the 1870s, but he set it aside for several years due to the demand for direct current equipment.
Thomson returned to alternating current research in the 1880s, as the direct current business matured and other companies, including Westinghouse, had begun to explore alternating current. The transformer was an essential element to an AC power system.
Van Depoele was a native of Belgium who moved to the United States in 1869 at the age of 23. He began experimenting with electricity at the age of 10. His father was master mechanic for a railroad and Charles became fascinated by the telegraph. After he moved to the U.S., he worked building furniture, and continued working with electricity in his free time, building arc lamps and dynamos. While in Detroit, he created demonstrations of arc lighting, electric factory motors, and electric streetcars. He moved to Chicago, and set up a larger railway demonstration at a Chicago fair. By 1887 he had 9 street railway installations and had established a business selling both arc and incandescent lamps. In 1888 he sold his business to Thomson-Houston, and moved to Lynn, MA where he worked on developing electrical machinery for mines.
View shows the growth of Thomson-Houston from its founding in 1883 to the merger with Edison General Electric in 1892. The company expanded from a single building to an entire factory complex in less than 10 years.
James J. Wood
James Wood got his first job at the age of 11, working for a lock manufacturing company in Branford Connecticut. In 1874 Wood moved to Brooklyn New York, where he began working for the Brady Manufacturing Company. In his first year, he quickly rose to the positions of superintendent, and Chief Engineer. While working full time, Wood earned a degree in Mechanical Engineering from Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, graduating in 1878.
In 1877 Wood witnessed a demonstration of James Fuller’s experimental dynamo, and was instantly fascinated with the concept of electricity. He studied electricity and physics in his spare time, and developed his own ideas about how to improve the electric dynamo. Wood began to think that Fuller’s dynamo had flaws - it was too noisy, used too much power, and ran too hot. Wood decided that he could develop a dynamo himself which addressed these problems.
Wood worked on his dynamo for two years, meeting with many failures but hope and the optimism of youth kept him going. In 1880 his machine was complete, and he had the joy of seeing the dynamo light an arc lamp.
Using the funds from a patent, Wood was determined to improve his design, working to improve voltage in his machine. His new dynamo eliminated the flash or “spark” where the brushes of the machine made contact with the commentator. When complete, Wood’s dynamo weighed 120 pounds, and ran with little noise. Wood went into business with Brady, and eventually James Fuller, creating the Fuller-Wood Company. They developed an arc light to accompany the dynamo, and became the first to use electricity to illuminate the Statue of Liberty.
Early Wood arc-lamp for street lighting. Wood developed a viable lamp that did not violate Charles Brush's patents.
Portrait photo of Ranald T. MacDonald, founder of Fort Wayne Electric Works. In 1890, Wood sold his electric company to R.T. McDonald, the general manager of the Fort Wayne Electric Company. Wood went to work for McDonald, relocating to Fort Wayne, Indiana. After McDonald’s death in 1898, the Fort Wayne Electric Company became part of GE. Wood continued to manage the Fort Wayne manufacturing plant while working on his own inventions.
James Wood was one of the first people to recognize the marketability of the household refrigerator. Under him, Fort Wayne played a major role in the manufacturing of General Electric’s refrigerator business. He was influential in the design and development of the modern electric refrigerator. He was able to see the development and large scale of success of the refrigerator before his death in 1928.
Wood and Fort Wayne became leaders in producing small motors. Pictured is a 1902 General Electric fan, produced by its subsidiary, the Fort Wayne Electric Works, and carrying the FWEW abbreviation in the center of the fan grill.
Frank Sprague was born in 1857 and was a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. Sprague became interested in electricity while serving in the Navy, but left in 1883 to work for Edison. Sprague oversaw some of Edison’s more challenging utility installations, and introduced mathematics methods into Edison’s design process. Sprague left Edison in 1884 to found the Sprague Electric Railway & Motor Company. Sprague introduced regenerative braking and a motor that maintained constant speed (under a varying electrical load). Sprague installed the first large scale railway system in Richmond, VA in early 1888. Sprague sold his business to Edison in 1890, and focused his efforts on electrifying the elevator. Until his death in 1934 Sprague continued to make improvements in his inventions.
Frank J. Sprague on his demonstration electric motor car on private track in New York City. Sprague created the first large scale electric railways, in Richmond, VA and New York.
Electric street car on Pittsburgh's Pleasant Valley Line, produced by Edison General Electric. The car is parked in front of a large bank in downtown Pittsburgh. Sprague sold his railway company to Edison General Electric.
Sprague is in white suit. Test was conducted in Schenectady in July 1897
Portrait photo of Frank J. Sprague, electric railway and motor pioneer. In less than 15 years, the electrical industry transformed from a collection of small startup companies to a large industry dominated by two companies, GE and Westinghouse. As the industry grew in the early 1880s, Edison and Thomson-Houston became two leaders, and purchased other companies to expand product lines or strengthen their patent control. Edison purchased Sprague Electric, which developed one of the first electric streetcar systems, while Thomson-Houston bought Brush Electric to strengthen its position in power generation and arc lighting, and Van Depoele Electric for its street railway system.
William Stanley and Westinghouse
William Stanley invented the first practical transformer, making large scale alternating current installations possible. While working for George Westinghouse in 1886, Stanley created the first large scale demonstration of an alternating current transmission system in Great Barrington, MA, developing a system that transmitted electricity nearly a mile to 19 businesses on Great Barrington’s Main Street. Stanley started electrical factories in Great Barrington and Pittsfield. His Pittsfield plant was purchased by GE in 1903.
Cabinet card photo of alternating current pioneer William Stanley
Portrait photo of inventor and industrial leader George Westinghouse. Westinghouse invented the air brake in 1868, and entered the electrical industry in 1885, overseeing the development of an alternating current system to compete with Edison's direct current system.
Alternating current transformer developed by William Stanley. The transformer was essential to alternating current systems, allowing voltage to be stepped up or down as required. AC power could be distributed at high voltage and then stepped down to enter homes.
Nine steps in the evolution of General Electric distribution transformers, from 1886 to 1936. Pictured in the insert is William Stanley, who developed the first successful alternating-current transformer in 1886.
In 1893, Westinghouse was awarded the contract for the Adams hydro station at Niagara Falls, utilizing technology developed by Nikola Tesla and Benjamin Lamme. GE received the contract for the transmission of the electricity from Niagara Falls to Buffalo.
Nikola Tesla, Serbian-born inventor who developed an early alternating-current motor and polyphase generator for Westinghouse, among his many inventions.
The Founding of General Electric
On April 15, 1892, General Electric was formed through a merger of the Edison General Electric Company and the Thomson-Houston company. The merger brought together two of the largest companies in the fledgling electrical industry.
The merger had been under discussion since at least February 1891, when the top staff of Thomson-Houston, based in Lynn, Massachusetts, visited Edison’s main plant in Schenectady. J.P. Morgan, Edison’s chief financial backer, and Charles Coffin, president of Thomson-Houston, explored the merger to improve profitability.
Charles Coffin became the president and chairman of the new company. Elihu Thomson became the chief inventor. Thomas Edison served for 10 years on the GE board of directors, but decided to focus on other projects, including the phonograph, motion pictures, iron mining, and cement manufacturing.
Diagram of fan pendant featuring the General Electric Monogram. This was the first public use of the GE Monogram. Three factors that played into the merger were the pooling of patents, commitment to alternating current, and economies of scale. It was impossible for one company to build the ideal electrical system without infringing on the patents from the other company. While Edison had control of the best consumer product, the incandescent lamp, Thomson-Houston had developed a superior generating system. Thomson had embraced the latest in generating technology, alternating-current, Edison had maintained his commitment to the older direct current system.
Portrait photo of Charles Coffin, first GE president.
Elihu Thomson and his protege, retired GE President E.W. Rice, Jr., sitting in the backyard of Rice's house in the GE Realty Plot in Schenectady, where they were preparing to film a movie.
The Mill Creek power house in Redlands, California was the first three phase power plant in North America. The station and equipment was designed by Elihu Thomson, Edwin W. RIce, Jr., Ernst Danielson, and Dr. Louis Bell.
General Electric inventor Elihu Thomson works at his desk in GE's Lynn, Massachusetts facilities. Thomson helped found the Thomson-Houston Electric Company, which merged with Edison General Electric in 1892 to form General Electric.
Early X-ray system developed by Elihu Thomson. It features a transformer in a wood box and a gas-filled X-ray tube.
X-ray of a bat, created using Elihu Thomson's X-ray system
Early view of X-ray system developed by Elihu Thomson. Thomson was one of the first inventors to research and commercialize X-rays after their discovery by Roentgen.
Turbine engineers Charles Curtis, Oscar Junggren, William Le Roy Emmett and Henry Reist defied their detractors and accomplished the impossible when they built two 5,000 kW turbine-generator sets for Samuel Insull, the president of the Chicago Edison utility company in 1903. This is the same Insull who had worked with Thomas Edison. Insull had a vision of giant electricity-generating machines that would make electricity affordable for everyone. Both GE and Chicago Edison risked the reputations and financial stability of their companies by engaging in the project. Chicago Edison constructed a space ten times larger than was necessary in the end to house the turbine-generators.
Despite this revolutionary achievement, by 1909 the two machines were obsolete. Engineers continue to push the limits of technology by making machines larger and more powerful than once imagined.
Portrait photo of Charles Curtis, steam-turbine inventor. In 1897, Curtis sold his steam turbine patent to General Electric.
5000 kw turbine direct connected to ATB-6-5000-500-9000 volt Form T generator. First 5000 kw turbine set in test, March 12, 1903. Workers stand at top of the turbine. Note a small Edison dynamo in the foreground.
Portrait photo of William LeRoy Emmet, GE steam turbine and marine turbine pioneer
5000 kw (5 megawatt) 500 rpm 2-stage curtis turbine direct connected to ATB-6-5000-500, 9000 volt generator, installed at Fisk. St. Station, Chicago Edison Co.
Portrait photo of Oscar Junggren, GE steam turbine pioneer. Together with William Emmet, Junggren designed the first large steam turbine for General Electric.
GE's first president, Charles Coffin, stands outside a car. Coffin was GE president from 1892-1914, and chairman from 1892-1922.
Luna Park, Coney Island, view of main tower over 60,000 small lamps in decorative lighting. 80-750 and 1000 watt mazda lamps in diffusing balls for general illumination.
Center facade of building has sign reading "The Electric Show"
Rear of building has large electric sign reading "Electric Show"
This exhibit was developed in 2017 by miSci, the Museum of Innovation & Science. All photos were scanned from the General Electric Photograph Collection.