- General Electric used to be a byword for American innovation until a few years ago.
- Its 127-year history was marked by revolutionary technologies, immense profit, and now, alleged fraud.
- Here’s a look back at GE, a manufacturing company that became one of the biggest on Earth, but not without immense setbacks.
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Ever since it was formed in 1892, GE has been a byword for American innovation — that is, until a few years ago.
GE hasn’t just gone through a tough period. It’s had a steady decline, caused by corporate turmoil, the 2008 financial crisis, falling market value, and bad subsidiary purchases. To top it off, last Thursday GE was accused of covering up $38 billion by Harry Markopolos, an accounting expert who was one of the first whistleblowers of Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme.
But in its heyday (which was most of its 127 years in business), GE was an example for businesses across America. It was one of the original 12 members of the Dow Jones industrial average — and the longest-standing. GE scientists and engineers invented or perfected light bulbs, X-rays, refrigerators, television, commercial jet engines, nuclear power plants, and so much more. GE’s legendary CEO, Jack Welch, defined corporate culture in the 1980s. His successors, Jeffrey Immelt, John Flannery, and Larry Culp saw the company fall from grace.
Here’s the story of GE, from manufacturer to global conglomerate to fallen giant.
1889-1892: Edison General Electric
Wikimedia Commons/Library of Congress
In 1879, inventor Thomas Edison patented the incandescent light bulb after his laboratory tested 3,000 designs over two years.
By 1889, Thomas Edison had formed Edison General Electric from a handful of electricity companies he’d been operating. Three years later, The General Electric Company was formed after a merger with Thomson-Houston Electric Company, led by businessman Charles Coffin.
1896: The Dow Jones industrial average
Just four years after its formation, General Electric became one of the original 12 companies to be a part of the Dow Jones industrial average, which was created to measure the value of industrial companies.
Every other company was eventually removed from the Dow, except for GE, which was included, on and off, for most of its existence. That changed in June 2018, when it was replaced by Walgreens Boots Alliance as one of the present-day 30 companies included.
1896-1981: New technologies
Over the decades, GE spent much of its time developing new technologies, ranging from home appliances to commercial jet engines. Many of its innovations resulted from merging with smaller companies to gain access to their inventions.
Whatever GE didn’t invent, however, it perfected. As the New York Times reports, GE’s accomplishments include the following:
- In 1906, a Swedish engineer invented voice radio. Before that, the closest thing people had to it was telegraphs transmitted via the dots and dashes of Morse code.
- In 1922, GE began making electric home appliances, such as the first electric stoves, washing machines, and refrigerators.
- In 1927, GE developed the first television.
- In the 1930s, moldable plastic was developed, revolutionizing mass-manufacturing.
- In 1941, GE built the first American jet engine.
- In 1957, GE opened the first nuclear power plant near Pittsburgh, which stayed open until 1982.
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