This page conforms to the XHTML standard and uses style sheets. If your browser doesn't support these, you may not see the page as designed, but all the text is still accessible to you.


Bringing the heritage of Schenectady County, New York to the world since 1996

You are here: Home » Resources » MVGW Home » Chapter 113

History of the Mohawk Valley: Gateway to the West 1614-1925
Chapter 113: General Electric Company.

[This information is from Vol. II, pp. 1580-1593 of History of the Mohawk Valley: Gateway to the West 1614-1925, edited by Nelson Greene (Chicago: The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1925). It is in the Reference collection of the Schenectady County Public Library at R 974.7 G81h. This online edition includes lists of portraits, maps and illustrations. Some images have been relocated to the area in the text where they are discussed. As noted by Paul Keesler in his article, "The Much Maligned Mr. Greene," some information in this book has been superseded by later research or was provided incorrectly by local sources.]

Contents | Biographies | Illustrations | Maps | Portraits

Go back to: Chapter 112 | ahead to: Chapter 114

Mohawk Valley is cradle of electrical industry — Wonderful work of General Electric Co. engineers at Schenectady, N. Y. — Dr. Charles P. Steinmetz, foremost writer of romance of electricity.

By Charles M. Ripley, E. E.

Romance Is Dead

"Romance is dead, and the world is gray,
The olden glamor has passed away" —
Yet, when I write to my Love afar,
By hill and valley, by sea and land,
Under Tropic or Northern star,
Vast forces answer to my command.
Ships and horses and trains and men —
Straight they carry my words to her,
And ever as swift as a wheel can stir
Bring me her message back again!

"Romance is dead!" — yet I touch a spring
And the hands of a Master play for me,
Or I summon the Queens of Song to sing,
Thrilling my soul with their melody;
"Romance is dead!" — yet a switch I throw
To waken the magic spells I know,
And the room about me leaps alight,
For I have called on the power and might
of modern Genii to bring to me
This radiance, making the darkness flee!

"Romance is dead and its magic flown,"
And yet wherever I gaze, I find
Miracles wrought in steel and stone
And huge enchantments to 'maze the mind,
The lightning's harnessed — the floods are still,
Held in bondage to do my will;
Who was the fool — the fool and blind,
Dullard and laggard both — who said,
"Romance is dead"?

— Berton Braley.

[Photo: The General Electric Company Works]

It was in the early eighties that Thomas A. Edison was riding westward from Albany on the New York Central. As the train passed through Schenectady, this genius visualized the manifold advantages of the old Dutch town as a factory location. It had transportation, roads, railroads, and water. It had a healthful climate surrounded by the Catskills, Adirondacks, Berkshires and Green Mountains.

And as Edison further investigated, he found other advantages — undiscovered by most — which made Schenectady an ideal site for a big industry. And so Edison's vision and judgment resulted in the Mohawk Valley being the cradle for the great romance of electrical achievement.

For here 25,000 men and women are working under unsurpassed conditions, turning out electric products that go all over the world and which lift the loads, carry the burdens, and turn the wheels which human and animal muscles formerly lifted and carried and turned.

Far up in the Himalaya Mountains of India are water wheel generators which harness the mountain cataracts. Far up in the Rocky Mountains at the very antipodes, freight and passenger trains, of unprecedented length are hauled across the Rocky Mountains and the Cascade Mountains by electric locomotives.

South African and Japanese railways, Philippine sugar mills, Carolina cotton mills, New England weaving mills, Pennsylvania and Montana mines now use the electrical machinery turned out in Schenectady.

Right after Thomas Edison located in Schenectady, the firm was called "The Edison General Electric Company," and when Edison united with Prof. Elihu Thomson, of the Thomson-Houston Electric Company, Lynn, Mass., the name of the firm was changed to the General Electric Company, which now throughout the United States employs 76,000 people — manufacturing, selling, purchasing, advertising — in a hundred different lines of activities.

But the Schenectady works in itself is one of the wonders of the world. Miracles have been performed here in the X-Ray, in the Research Laboratory, which perfected the electric lamps hanging above your head, in the improved lamps which have made the motion picture industry possible.

Dr. Charles P. Steinmetz said that the romantic side of industry is a reality, though most people can only see the grimy and uninteresting routine of production. He pointed out to many the curious spectacular and awe inspiring scenes in this big industrial plant. He said that the writers of today are out of touch with the twentieth century and that they have never seen the poetry of our scientific and engineering twentieth century. And Dr. Steinmetz wrote,

"There is more poetry, more romance in the advances which we have seen in our life time than in all the tales of bygone ages.

"We navigate the depth of the ocean by submarines. Thanks to electricity in the spark, we fly to the higher altitudes of tha skies by aeroplane. We fling the human voice over thousands of miles across continents and oceans by telephone. Still unborn generations will hear the living voices of our musicians bequeathed to them by the phonograph. Our great, great grandchildren will see in action the prominent men of today recorded and everlastingly perpetuated by the cinematoscope — new historian of these great times.

"There is romance in the life of the vigilant mariner who listens to wireless messages from distant shores.

"There is romance in the mighty spinning tops, the steam turbines, fed by the stored sunlight of prehistoric ages — ages when ferns were giant trees and our ancestors were crawling things in the slime on the shores of the lagoon — not very long ago as time is counted in the universe. Turning at a speed which would carry it across the continent in a few hours were it not imprisoned in the power plant, some single turbines furnish mankind with electricity equaling the power of 60,000 horses. They turn night into day and propel the electric train with the speed of a gale. They actuate mines and factories and make possible wonderful material unknown to former generations.

"In the modern power plant and factories, there is more romance and poetry than there has ever been in the history of the past; but we must be living with it to see and understand it. That is, we must be living with the men of our century and not sheltered in the dust of past ages."

So wrote Dr. Steinmetz, the Electrical Wizard of Schenectady.

Would you like to take an inspection trip of this big factory — a city in itself? Yes? Then come with me.

The Great Industrial Orchestra

In walking down the great avenue we come to building 49. As we enter the door of this long structure, 1,200 feet long, you glance at your watch. It is 12:27 P. M. The only sound is the low conversation of a few men sitting together as the end of the dinner hour draws near.

We walk down the aisle of the building viewing the giant machines which tower high above our heads on either side, when suddenly the roar of the 12:30 whistle interrupts our thoughts.

Before the whistle stops blowing, we see one man neatly fold up his newspaper and put it in his coat pocket; and scarcely has the sound of the whistle died down than there arises sharp and clear, the shrill whine of a motor driving one of the smaller machines tools. But it is only for an instant that the high soprano of this motor fills the building, for almost immediately it is followed by a second machine — one whose motor sings a tenor note; and we had not taken twenty steps after the blowing of the whistle before the deep, rumbling grunt of a boring mill takes up the bass. In less time than it takes to describe it, lathes, drill presses, cranes and hand tools, all join together singing their respective parts, and we are surrounded by a great industrial orchestra — the building reverberating to the indescribable song of American industry. A step more and the sharp staccato strokes of some pneumatic tools dominate the song and then an overhead electric crane swoops down and gently deposits 17 tons of cast iron at our feet.

All around us, reverberating from the high ceilings and resounding from the whitewashed walls, is the voice of steel as it tortures steel, fabricating electrical machinery to drive the wheels of world-wide industry. Turbines that propel ships, generators for use in power plants, motors for steel mills, yes, these giant machines that emancipate labor from dull drudgery, these machines that do the muscle work and allow the operators to work more with their brains than with their muscles — they will soon be in the customers' hands, throughout the four quarters of the globe.

Examine one of these machines — of what are they composed? Chiefly copper, iron, steel, wood, cotton, silk and rubber. A yellow man spun the silk in Japan, a black man picked the cotton in Texas, a brown man tapped the rubber trees of Ceylon for the insulation around the wires, people in the uttermost parts of the world picked, dug, scraped, dragged and carried the raw materials which are now being assembled into machines that help the human race. The iron was made from Minnesota ore, smelted in south Chicago with Michigan limestone, and coke made from Pennsylvania or West Virginia coal. The armatures of the motors are bound with phosphor bronze wire. Each ounce of this wire involves the carrying of its ingredients almost 16,000 miles; for the copper travels 2,700 miles from Montana, the zinc came 2,000 miles from Oklahoma and the tin 11,000 miles from Singapore — and combined they make the toughest wire known to the engineer.

What a world-wide mechanism is the electrical business, drawing its parts from Tropics and Orient, from the Old World and the New, and then sending the electrical machine back to help gather more material to make more machinery.

And the shipping of these giant machines is a study in itself. Let us visit Building 50 — the department in Schenectady where the apparatus is boxed and crated for its long arduous journey.

Think of the preparation necessary to insure the safe delivery of electrical machinery to South America, for instance. It goes by railroad to New York, by boat to South America, and from the boat it is unloaded into canoes. These canoes are paddled as close as possible to shore and then the boxes or packages of carefully made electrical machinery are cast into the surf. Then they are dragged to shore and trucked to a railroad station and begin a journey of from two to four days more in an open or flat car to the end of the line near the foot of the mountain; then four days more in an open boat with an Indian or peon as pilot. And then, after the river ceases to be navigable to boats, the Yankee motors and generators are loaded on the backs of mules for their long journey up the narrow winding paths of the Andes Mountains.

And the shipping experts in Schenectady are acquainted with the habits of the people and even of the insects of foreign lands. The termite is an insect in India which feeds chiefly on wood and does not leave even as much as sawdust after he has completed his meal. On one occasion a row of telegraph poles in India were completely eaten up by these termites and in 48 hours nothing was left but the wires and glass insulators. Schenectady engineers have found that there are only three things which resist this insect, namely, stone, iron and humble coal tar. So that all boxes that are sent to this section must be thoroughly coated with coal tar just as the workmen spread it thickly on the roof of a building.

And to the opposite end of the earth — Alaska — machines is boxed for transportation by Eskimo dog teams.

[Photo: Edison and Steinmetz]

Steinmetz Helps

For many years, it had been found that the shipments of machinery were damaged by rust although they were perfectly protected from rain and snow. Various experiments were tried using special kinds of cloth, special coatings of tar and in some cases, an entire metal box of zinc or lead, apparently hermetically sealed, was used as a container. The shippers were baffled until Steinmetz advised that the boxes be made open instead of closed and that breathing holes should be provided so as to keep the temperature inside the box the same as the temperature outside. And it worked! The generators for the Great London Underground Railway arrived at the power house free from rust. But it was found that the mice on shipboard had taken advantage of the breathing holes in the boxes and had eaten the insulation off some of the copper wires. So from that time on, a wire screen or netting was tacked on the inside of each of the Steinmetz breathing holes.

So from that day to this, whether it be an electric locomotive for the Panama Canal or a steam turbine for power plants in Japan, all export shipments have been made in open boxes rather than closed boxes.

Yes, there are mighty interesting things here in the Mohawk Valley — there is not a race of civilized or semi-civilized people in the world that can't read the name Schenectady on the bronze name plate of the weird electrical machines which help them at their tasks.

Using Energy of Sun

If a group of men want to harness a waterfall, they call on the engineers from this Mohawk Valley Electrical Town that "lights and hauls the world." These engineers know how to change the energy of the sun into electricity, using water as the power transmitting medium.

And the massive electrical generators are the essential links between the mountain torrents and the electric power lines of copper. For it is the energy of the sun that lifts the water high up into the clouds and gives us not only food, clothing and shelter, but heat, light and power.

The Fable of the Four Raindrops

On a warm summer afternoon, four drops of water lay on the bay. As the sun blazed hot, these drops evaporated, ascended heavenward and helped to form a cloud. The cloud blew northward. One drop of water fell in a garden and helped furnish mankind with food. Another drop of water fell in a field of cotton and helped to give mankind clothing. The third drop fell in a forest, nourished a tree and helped to provide mankind with shelter. But the fourth raindrop was not destined to furnish man with food, clothing and shelter, but to give him heat, light and power.

On and on it went further northward until it dropped on a mountain peak. Slowly it crept down the edge of the rock, then joined some brothers in a tiny rivulet, then tumbled into a mountain brook and soon into a raging torrent as it thundered down the mountain side, emptied into a river and flowed back into the sea. For ages and ages, this great cycle has been going on — water, mist, clouds, rain and water again; up from tropics to arctic lands and down again — countless billions of tons of water lifted and carried countless of billions of miles. Our forefathers stood impotent beside the great mountain cataracts, unable to use the priceless energy which was wasting itself in roar and mist; for there was missing that vital link — electricity.

But now electricity takes the power of our mountain cataracts to the cities where it turns the wheels of industry; to our mines where it first dislodges and then hoists the coal or metals to the surface; and it is electricity that spins out the power of the water fall over a band of copper arteries along the path of the transcontinental electrified railway.

Schenectady — in the Mohawk Valley — supplies huge electric generators for scores, yes, for thousands of these mountain and river power plants.

Let us visit Building 16 in the Schenectady Works, where the men have shown the utmost ingenuity in handling large armatures and fields weighing sometimes over a hundred tons. The generator field of a water wheel generator of 12,000 H. P. capacity is 25 feet in diameter, with a total weight of 115 tons. Here just recently were completed the 70,000 H. P. generators for the latest Niagara Falls power plant. So from the manufacturing standpoint, the men in Building 16 who have built millions of H. P. of these waterwheel generators, face the most colossal problems of size and weight which exist in the whole General Electric Company.

So great do these machines become as they are assembled that it is necessary to bring the tools to the work instead of bringing the work to the tools. Large size drills, and slotting machines, some of them three times as tall as a man, and weighing 40 tons, are easily moved by the overhead traveling electric cranes (which are a priceless boon to factory labor all over the world), to the generator being assembled on the iron floor.

Next let us see how the General Electric Company makes turbines — the kind that makes electricity out of steam.

So we walk out again to the broad, well-paved avenue. We pass the restaurant that serves a million meals a year, by means of four conveyor belts, all during the rush hour four men are served their mid-day meal every second. Across the street is the hospital whose slogan is "Every scratch is an accident." The workers in offices and shops alike, are instructed to have even the slightest scratch scientifically dressed at the hospital, so as to prevent infection, such as recently cost the life of our President's son.

In the same building with the hospital is the Fire Headquarters housing the Chief, his staff and the main apparatus. So effective has this crew been in fire preventive and fire extinguishing measures that over a period of ten years the average loss per fire was only $39!

Here the Main Avenue broadens, grass plots and trees suggest a boulevard, a band stand suggests a park and when one learns that there are 70 miles of railroad tracks inside the factory one begins to get the impression that this institution is a city in itself.

Then there looms before us a monument towering high above our heads. It is made of iron and steel, and is a splendid example of the fact that there is still some sentiment existing in a big busy industrial plant.

This monument is an old turbine — the first big turbine ever built. It worked for eight years in the Commonwealth Edison Company's power plant in Chicago. Then it was superseded by more efficient steam turbines, but it was not scrapped! It was brought back to its birthplace and erected here as a monument to commemorate the beginning of the big turbine business and the resulting wide use of electricity.

[Photo: Interior of Building No. 60, General Electric Co. Works]

Let us now enter Building 60 — one of the biggest machine shops in the world. 'Tis here they are building turbines ten times larger than this giant monument standing amidst the grass plot in front.

Here at our left is a machine being completed of 60,000 horse power. This can do the muscle work of 600,000 men; for roughly, each horsepower is the equivalent of ten men. But a man cannot work 24 hours a day while these turbines do, as this machine can furnish as much energy as 1,800,000 men working in three eight-hour shifts. The machine does the muscle work, the men provide the directing skill.

Can you appreciate how much energy this is? If this amount of power were applied to lighting, it would illuminate a street as wide as Broadway, reaching around the earth.

Applied to power in transportation, it can operate all the street cars in ten or twelve cities each the size of Schenectady.

Applied to power of a destructive nature, this energy operating crushing and grinding machines could chew up the Washington Monument in a few hours and grind it into sand before another sunrise; or applied to numerous metal saws, it could easily saw all the steel in the Woolworth Building into small pieces.

If the energy of this single turbine were used as heat in electric arcs it could melt down the Eiffel Tower and send it crashing into the streets of Paris in a quarter of an hour!

But there are more interesting things about these turbines than their great size and power. Many of these turbines are designed so that they can use steam hot enough to melt lead. A quarter of a second later this same steam comes out of the turbine with a temperature of 79 degrees Fahrenheit — or 18 degrees cooler than human blood. What a wonderful thing these machines are, may be partially grasped when you appreciate that they can rob the steam of its heat energy in a fraction of a second, and turn that energy into electricity to help the human race.

And the building itself is a colossal industrial achievement. There are over a thousand motor driven tools, employing 2,500 electric motors, aggregating over 10,000 horse power. There are over a hundred miles of wiring in the building, 10 miles of steam pipes, and the amount of glass, the number of windows, doors, skylights and so forth would sound like the report of a statistician.

The building contains four million bricks and nearly ten thousand tons of steel, not counting the tools. From the standpoint of fire protection, there is nearly a mile of fire hose, and 7,000 automatic sprinkler heads, and 150 fire buckets stand ready to guard the men and the machines.

Let us read the inscription on some of the big turbines being built: Here is a 50,000 kilowatt turbine for Detroit Edison No. 3.

There a 35,000 kilowatt machine for the New York Edison Company No. 7.

Next a 35,000 kilowatt for the Southern California Edison No. 1.

Then a 35,000 kilowatt for the American Gas & Electric, South Bend No. 1.

A 15,000 kilowatt for the El Paso Electric Railway Co. of Texas.

A 15,000 kilowatt for Pineville and 7,500 for Salem, Mass. We cannot read them all — there are scores being built right before our eyes.

So you see, this big Mohawk Valley industry called the General Electric Company, makes the apparatus for generating electricity by steam and by water, makes the apparatus for transmitting this energy over mountains and valleys from the power plant, and over and under river and canyon — on to the cities; and this big organization also makes the motors and lamps for using the electricity, and the apparatus for stopping, starting and otherwise controlling the flow of the current and the speed of the machines. Here they are building the equipment of giant power stations and substations, as well as apparatus to artistically light and heat milady's boudoir or equip a beauty parlor.

Many of the radio inventions were originated here; and much of the radio apparatus is made by the General Electric Company in the Schenectady Works. The famous WGY Broadcasting Station is located here — its high steel tower piercing the sky and adding another lofty touch of romance to the great industrial picture.

The General Electric Company manufactures over 1,000 different products. At the Schenectady Works alone, 690 different products are made, including 58 different types of motors, 33 types of switches and 45 types of generators.

Among the different electrical products made are the following:

Speaking of the wondrous achievements of the present day engineer, some one has written:

"He has started in to tap the resources of the universe for his own advantage. He has set out to make himself at home on this planet. Already he can outfly the eagle on his self-made wings. He can outrun the deer in his automobile. In his submarine, he can outswim the whale. While the watch is ticking off a second, he can send his voice around the world. In an aeroplane, he spans the width of an entire continent in a day. He has torn from the skies the secret of electricity and he uses it as a giant slave to do his work. Nor is his thirst for mechanical power in any degree assuaged. Rather his career of mastery is just begun. Every year that passes brings the world more completely under his subjection. With chemistry and physics as his weapons, he is wrenching from a reluctant universe the secrets of new forces."

And it is in Schenectady, N. Y. — in the historic Mohawk Valley — that the leaders of this wonderful electrical industry make their home.

Go to top of page | back to: Chapter 112 | ahead to: Chapter 114

You are here: Home » Resources » MVGW Home » Chapter 113 updated March 30, 2015

Copyright 2015 Schenectady Digital History Archive — a service of the Schenectady County Public Library