GE was still essentially a startup when its managers hired young MIT chemistry professor Willis Whitney to open the company’s first laboratory in 1900. Unlike Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park “invention factory” in New Jersey, the place was a modest affair. It was located in a wooden barn behind the house of GE’s resident polymath and engineering wizard Charles Steinmetz in Schenectady, New York, where GE co-founder Edison moved in the 1880s.
Things didn’t start well. The lab — dedicated to “fundamental research” — went up in flames the next spring, but Whitney’s career and momentum continued. He rebuilt the lab and brought in researchers such as Nobel Prize-winning chemist Irving Langmuir. Today, GE Global Research, which is still headquartered in the Schenectady suburb of Niskayuna, employs some 3,000 scientists and has outposts all around the world.
Every fall, GE Global Research holds a scientific gathering called the Whitney Symposium in Schenectady to commemorate the lab founder’s legacy and highlight the latest developments. This year the theme of the two-day event explores industrial applications of artificial intelligence.