Mark Little, head of GE Global Research, says that at GE, “the business of research is not the business of Eureka moments. It’s the business of planning strategic approaches to things, hard work, and patience.” This has been true for over a century, whether the innovation at hand involved a lightweight composite blade for the latest jet engine, or the blade of a carving knife for slicing Thanksgiving turkey.
The story of the mighty electric carving knife is a great example of how GE marries the scientific method to applied research, business acumen and manufacturing prowess. William H. Sahloff, who in the 1950s ran GE’s housewares division, believed that the American kitchen was missing the perfect slicing utensil. Sahloff’s intuition about what homes lacked had paid off before: he was the man who conceived the electric can opener and the electric toothbrush.
Still, leaving little to chance, GE conducted a consumer survey “on the most unpleasant jobs in the home.” It confirmed Sahloff’s hunch and found that “carving was often cited.”
At that point, the engineers were called in. According a 1968 written history of the knife preserved by the Schenectady Museum, the research and development concept “was one which General Electric applies to all of its products: fill the need by producing a product which will serve the consumer efficiently.”
GE engineers in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and Brockport, New York, spent five years perfecting the knife. They found out that a single sharp blade was performing poorly and figured out a way to use two serrated reciprocating blades powered by a 120-volt electrical motor. The blades had edges hardened with tungsten carbide and moved back and forth 2,000 per minute. They did the slicing, not the user.
The engineers were informed in their research by “home economists in the housewares division’s test kitchen [who] conducted home application tests. The home economists considered the product’s usefulness to the consumer during its development stage and tested pilot models,” the knife history declares.
Even so, despite all the R&D effort, “the new idea met resistance from some General Electric executives, who doubted that the product would sell well,” according to the history. There were also naysayers among wholesalers and retailers in 1963, when the knife debuted at the National Housewares Exhibit at a suggested retail price of $27.95.
But the roar of millions of electric knives soon drowned the critics out. Over 5 million knives with retail value of $100 million were sold in 1965 and 1966. On the innovation side, GE engineers filed for six patents when the knife debuted, and dozens more later.
In many American households, sliced turkey never looked the same again.