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What is the History of General Electric?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated May 16, 2024
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The General Electric Company, commonly abbreviated simply to GE, is a major technology conglomerate based in the United States. It was founded in Menlo Park, New Jersey, in 1878, by Thomas Edison, the inventor of the light bulb. It has gone on to become one of the most powerful and dynamic corporations in the world, and as of 2008 was the tenth-largest company on Earth in terms of market capitalization. It is viewed by many as being the single most successful conglomerate, and was a conglomerate long before the practice became commonplace in the 1960s.

Thomas Edison is widely hailed as a genius, both as an inventor and as a businessman, and it was his vision that laid the groundwork for General Electric. In 1876 he opened his first real workshop in Menlo Park, where he set about exploring the possibilities of many different inventions he had seen at that year’s Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. This workshop would eventually yield arguably one of the most important inventions of the modern age: the electric light.

In 1890, Edison started a company to bring together his various businesses all under one roof, and called it the Edison General Electric Company. Two years later Edison merged with his primary competitor, the Thomas-Houston Company, and they called the new company the General Electric Company. The move was largely a bid to combine their various patents, to allow for more profitability on both of their parts, as it allowed them to freely use the many smaller inventions each inventor had created in their larger projects.

Over the years, GE continued to grow and produce different products for a wide range of applications. Many of Edison’s early inventions formed the backbone of various lines through the 19th century, the 20th century, and down to the present day. Electric lighting, power transmission, medical equipment, and transportation were all areas in which Edison held patents and had formed small companies, and are all areas in which this conglomerate today has large holdings.

Over the years General Electric continued to innovate in a huge range of fields, and opened divisions specializing in everything from plastics to airplanes to electric fans. At the beginning of the 20th century, the company had the first voice radio broadcast in the world, the first electric toaster, and began work on vacuum tubes that would herald the dawn of the electronic age. In the 1910s and 1920s General Electric continued to innovate, setting a new altitude record with an airplane, making the refrigerator a common household word, and building the world’s largest electrical facility on the Panama Canal.

Through the Great Depression, GE continued to innovate in other ways, introducing a Consumer Finance system to allow consumers to buy appliances for the home even in hard times. In the era of World War II, the company assisted with the war effort, innovating in radar technology, and creating the first jet engine. From the 1950s through to the new millennium, General Electric continued to grow, tapping into emerging markets and investing massive resources in pushing the bounds of technologies across every sector.

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Discussion Comments

By Qohe1et — On Jan 26, 2011


I think I would agree with @Tufenkian925. Founding fathers are revered on the basis that they started something, and we tend to forget their flaws. Even the founding fathers of our nation had problems which would be considered racist and bigoted in our modern age.

By SilentBlue — On Jan 26, 2011


I think that it is revisionist history which tends to look on Edison with a skeptical eye. He was a true founding father of modern technology.

By Tufenkian925 — On Jan 25, 2011

Thomas Edison was a genius, but he was also manipulative. He conducted a smear campaign against Nicolai Tesla, because he was jealous of Tesla's superior electrical innovations. Tesla had been a student of Edison, but had broken with Edison, and Edison was resentful of this fact. Edison's model of excessive perspiration and minimal inspiration is an obviously backward concept. Real genius is actually considerably more of a balance between perspiration and inspiration.

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