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General Electric's 125 Years In Schenectady Recognized In New Exhibit

General Electric is marking 125 years in Schenectady. A local museum is exploring GE’s history from Thomas Edison to the modern era. WAMC’s Southern Adirondack Bureau Chief Lucas Willard took a tour of the exhibit that opens this weekend.

Driving into Schenectady, it’s hard to miss the sprawling General Electric complex with its glowing rooftop emblem.

GE once employed 30,000 people in Schenectady. The company founded by Thomas Edison arrived in what would soon be known as the Electric City 125 years ago.

A new exhibit at the Museum of Innovation and Science in the city is displaying everything from tubes to turbines, a retrospective of a company that transformed the country.

MiSci Vice President of Collections and Exhibitions Chris Hunter said Edison sent men from New York City to seek a place to accommodate his expanding Edison Machine Works.

“And one of them happened to be passing through on a visit to the carpet mills in Amsterdam. And passed by two vacant locomotive factory buildings in between the Erie Canal and the New York Central Rail Road. So he wired back to Samuel Insull, who was Edison’s chief assistant. And Insull came up here, took a look, and told Edison, ‘These are the buildings, you need to buy these.’”

Edison Machine Works moved to Schenectady in 1886. In 1889, Edison’s electric companies were formed into Edison General Electric. In 1892, as the business grew, it merged with the Thomson-Houston Electric Company in Lynn, Massachusetts and was renamed General Electric.

Executive Director Mac Sudduth said MiSci’s mission is to inspire visitors by exploring innovation of the past, present and future.

“And so it’s really important to see the progression of innovation that happened right here in Schenectady. It’s an amazing amount. So that’s why we think it’s important. It’s a retrospective; we don’t do this all the time. We do this to honor the 125th anniversary, but GE has been so important not just to Schenectady but to the country,” said Sudduth.

The exhibit contains products and prototypes dating back more than a century. 

Visitors to the exhibition can view what a television screen looked like in 1928. The screen, installed in a wooden octagon atop a large cabinet, is smaller than today’s smart phones. The device would have picked up broadcast signals from GE, a station that would become the still operational WRGB – which claims to be the world’s first TV station.

Hunter is fond of a display that shows the progression of the electric toaster, which started out as an exposed heating coil.

“And then they build a door, and then they build a pop-out toaster in the 20s, and finally the pop-up toasters,” said Hunter. “So that’s something that kids can recognize and apply it to their own life.”

But it’s not all gadgets and gizmos. Also on display: series of portraits of everyday workers.

“GE did lots of portraits of important people but then they realized that they needed to have some portraits just of the workers. So they commissioned an artist, and these have been  in the basement since I’ve been here and we were really pleased just to get them on display,” said Sudduth.

Sudduth said the museum could use some help identifying some of the individuals depicted in the paintings.

A grand opening and member preview for MiSci’s Inside Edison’s House of Magic: 125 Years of Innovation at GE is set to begin Thursday at 5 p.m.

The exhibit opens to the public on Saturday.

Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.
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