Imagine it’s a summer Friday at Hartsfield-Jackson International, the world’s busiest airport. A thunderstorm this morning has broken dozens of connections in and out of Atlanta. Departing planes crawl in a long line along the tarmac. A few thousand feet up, some pilots are free to land while others groan as they turn into their fourth lap. Everybody wants faster updates from the control tower.
Cloudy With a Chance of Data: Storing air traffic management data in the cloud is part of GE’s push to build the Industrial Internet.
Air traffic delays don’t just spoil meeting plans or dinner at home. A second layer of frustration comes from not knowing what is happening. Even the pilots use the intercoms to vent: “Folks, I am still waiting to hear what gate we have been assigned.” Or, “We are 22nd in line to take off, and I am not sure what the hold-up is.”But what if technology could solve the information problem and tame the delays? That solution is cloud computing, the same massive computer data farms that already hold your Gmail email, Picasa pictures, or Spotify music. “The cloud will get passengers from A to B quicker,” says Mike Durling, manager of GE’s supervisory controls and systems integration lab, at GE Global Research. “It allows speedy decisions about the plane’s position and path, allowing more seamless trips.” Right now, air-traffic control uses technology that is hosted locally. A plane relies on the information it gets from the local tower. Air-traffic information has not yet been networked. But in the future, pilots will be able to fly into a figurative cloud of information that receives feeds from all over the world.Soon air traffic controllers, whether in Atlanta or Zurich, will share real-time data through the cloud (really huge, earth-bound warehouses filled with thousands of data servers). Pilots will use that information to determine routes and altitude and prepare for any delays that may be brewing. Instead of radioing the tower, a pilot can pull down gate assignments herself, shaving minutes from the flight.Durling’s lab won a contract this year to add cloud computing capabilities to ‘NextGen’ Air Traffic Management technology, the name given to a new National Airspace System due to be rolled out in the U.S. by 2025. NextGen will haul the country’s air traffic control from an aging ground-based system to a satellite-based system. One benefit of such an upgrade is that journey times will shorten. So this new technology means less fuel-guzzling and lower emissions. Looked at a different way, shorter trips mean lower ticket prices.Cloud computing is already a popular way to store music or word processing. But it’s been slow to progress to the aviation sector. The concept’s the same. Various users can tap into a remote location where there are no limits on data storage, performance and agility. GE teams feed the cloud with reams of data about wind speed, altitude and journey times, which are the building blocks of larger models that manage air traffic. “The cloud fills in the gaps between the different independent platforms, such as those in the cockpit and on the ground,” says Durling. It reduces the impact of unknown factors—such as poor weather, off-schedule airplanes or the lack of empty gates—that add time to the journey. So if you’re reading this at 10,000 feet while waiting for a landing slot—help’s on the way.
Every day, Kenya’s capital Nairobi goes four hours without power. That’s the price of a growing economy bumping against creaky infrastructure struggling to keep up. The blackouts are big problem for people like Bernard Njoroge, whose company Adrian Group keeps cellphone towers running for Kenya’s largest telecom, Safaricom. Njoroge used to rely on noisy power generators belching diesel fumes into Kenya’s hot air, and lead-acid batteries that could barely bridge the outage gap.
Not anymore. Njoroge just purchased 200 next-generation Durathon batteries made by GE. The batteries can last for as long as nine hours, a plenty of time to cover a power outage and recharge from the grid. “For a long time, I’ve been looking for an innovation like Durathon,” Njoroge says. “I have no need to run the generators, no more trouble with noise. With the batteries we can provide 99 percent availability of the network.”
Telecom operators in Africa and elsewhere will soon start powering cell phone towers with GE’s next-generation Durathon batteries. The low-maintenance batteries last twice as long as ordinary lead-acid batteries and can work for 20 years. They are also non-toxic and fully recyclable.
GE introduced Durathon, the flagship product of a new business unit called GE Energy Storage, only two months ago. Njoroge’s Adrian Group is one of 10 new customers from Africa, Asia, and the U.S. who just placed orders for batteries valued at $63 million. That’s on top of an order placed earlier in the summer by South Africa’s Megatron Federal.Durathon is using innovative sodium chemistry to generate charge. The batteries, which contain more than 30 patents, can recharge 3,500 times, ten times more often than ordinary batteries, and last for two decades. They work in temperatures from minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit to 140-degree heat. They are non-toxic, fully recyclable, and take half the amount of space as lead-acid batteries.GE is spending $170 million on a brand new Durathon plant the size of four football fields in Schenectady, New York. At full capacity, the plant will employ 450 workers. GE engineer Glen Merfeld was one of the lead engineers involved in developing Durathon. “We had to bring together expertise in materials science, ceramics, metallurgy, and manufacturing technology,” Merfeld says. “But there was almost nothing we couldn’t work through. I think that’s part of the story, why it’s so exciting that we have this incredibly cool new factory.”Njoroge’s Adrian Group supports telecoms in five East African countries, including Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi. “They’ve caught the word of what we are doing,” he says. “There’s going to be a lot of traffic, people coming to see the application in Nairobi. This product will be a fast seller in the region.”
Soon after the Space Shuttle Columbia broke up on descent from orbit in February 2003, material scientists and engineers at a GE plant in Newark, Delaware, started building a set of repair kits long thought impossible.
Columbia suffered a crack in its left wing when it was hit by a briefcase-size insulating foam fragment that fell from a fuel tank during take-off. During her return, superheated air entered the spacecraft through the wound and ripped the shuttle apart 15 minutes before touchdown.
The GE team, in collaboration with NASA and industry partners, helped design and fabricate unique patches future crews could use to repair similar damage in space.
Space Shuttle Discovery returned to flight in July 2005. It was the first shuttle to fly after the Columbia disaster. It carried two wing and body repair kits made from a ceramic composite material developed by GE scientists.
The team designed the patches from a special ceramic composite material that could survive wild temperature swings, from minus 250 degrees Fahrenheit in orbit to 3,000 degrees during descent.
“You could bolt it on the wing’s leading edge in space and cover the damaged portion,” says Robert Klacka, technology marketing manager at GE Ceramic Composite Products. “The repair kit had 30 different patches that could cover a hole located on over 80 percent of the wing leading edge surface. The thin, flexible panels used a high temperature toggle bolt to attach it through the hole in the wing. Thankfully, we never had to use them.”That’s not entirely true. NASA retired the shuttle fleet last year, but the a class of the materials, called ceramic matrix composites (CMCs), lives on inside the LEAP jet engine and other technology. Related applications include steering components for ballistic missile defense systems, and as rocket motor thrusters for new commercial space transportation aircraft.Ordinary ceramics can take a lot of heat but are notoriously fragile. Scientists at GE Aviation, GE Global Research and at Klacka’s Delaware plant have spent the last two decades developing ceramic composites that are tough, light and heat-resistant. The extra heat allows engines like the LEAP to extract more power and become more efficient.GE makes two types of ceramic composites: ceramics strengthened with carbon fibers handle over 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit and serve as hot gas valves and thrusters inside of rocket systems and heat shields for hypersonic aircraft and re-entry vehicles in the aerospace industry.
The second group includes CMCs, which are reinforced with ceramic fibers and operate at 2,400 degrees. They are more durable and have applications as turbine tip shrouds, combustor liners, blades, and fairings in turbinesand jet engines.GE workers in Delaware make the composite parts from specially engineered fiber tapes that are shapd into turbine engine components, infiltrated with silicon and converted into ceramic. “I’ve seen a lot of different materials,” says Klacka, who has been in the composites business for over 25 years. “Our materials have the strength, durability and manufacturability that other ceramic composites lack. That’s why they work.”
Brian Conners likes to break things down. “I am a manufacturing engineer,” he says. “But I like taking things apart, rather than building them.” He’s got the perfect job. Conners is president and chief operating officer of ARCA Advanced Processing, which runs a hulking 40-foot shredder that can chomp down one two-door refrigerator-freezer to chip-sized bits every 50 seconds, or 600 of them per day. “Think of it as a giant paper shredder,” he says.
Speed is only one of the machine’s virtues. Americans junk about nine million refrigerators and freezers every year. Most are recycled for metals at auto shredders along with cars. As a result, the plastics and the insulating foam, suffused with blowing agents like the ozone-depleting Freon and potent greenhouse gases, end up in landfills and in the atmosphere. The shredder can recover approximately 95 percent of the insulating foam and the harmful gasses in it. “The environmental benefit of treating the foam is tremendous,” he says.
GE partnered with Conners’ joint-venture partner, Appliance Recycling Centers of America, in 2009. GE ships to Conners old refrigerators from customers who buy a new one from The Home Depot and other retailers connected to GE’s vast appliance distribution network. Since last summer, the shredder recycled 100,000 refrigerators and fridges, diverting 5.5 million pounds of foam and plastics from landfills for reuse. Pellets of the “degassed” foam, for example, can be used as fuel in cement manufacturing. “GE is the first and only appliance manufacturer to implement the EPA’s Responsible Appliance Disposal Program,” says Mark Vachon, GE’s vice president for ecomagination. “We are reducing emissions of ozone depleting substances, greenhouse gasses and the amount of waste entering our landfills, and protecting our air and water.”Conners’ plant is in Philadelphia, but on a typical day trucks haul in old fridges from a dozen eastern states between Vermont and North Carolina. “They don’t come in at the same rate every day,” Conners says. “In the summer and during the holiday season we get more. But we take all brands.” Workers at the recycling plant first remove cords, shelves, the refrigerant and oil from the compressor.A conveyor belt takes the empty fridge shell inside a sealed vacuum chamber, where large knives made from hardened steel cut it to bits one and half inches long. The machine then mechanically sorts out the different materials. Air suction hoods pull off the foam, magnets handle steel, and special “eddy current separators” handle aluminum and copper. The final recycling product, plastics, exits in large bags.The recycling machine automatically pumps out the harmful gasses trapped in the shredding chamber and cools them down with liquid nitrogen to minus 90 degrees Celsius. At that freezing temperature, the gasses turn into liquids. The shredder bottles the liquefied gasses in tanks, and workers ship them for destruction to a special incinerator in Arkansas. “It’s the cutting edge of technology,” Conners says.
Conners’ shredder is the only such machine in the U.S. manufactured by UNTHA Recycling Technologies (URT). The URT system can process approximately one refrigerator per 50 seconds. The URT system can transform refrigerator insulating foam into pellets for use as fuel or other products. The URT system recovers approximately 95 percent of the insulating foam in refrigerators in a sealed system, reducing greenhouse gas and ozone-depleting substance emissions. “Industry Way” – one refrigerator’s shredded insulating foam which is typically landfilled (three large blue barrels). “The RAD Way” – one refrigerator’s degassed and pelletized insulating foam, which can be used as fuel or other products (lower, far right bucket). The URT system recovers high-quality plastics, aluminum, copper, steel and even pelletized foam. They can be used to make new products. Shown here: steel.
Some of earliest and best anatomical drawings come from Leonardo da Vinci. The renaissance polymath would sit in on human and animal autopsies (he would sometimes cut the bodies himself) and record his observations in detailed drawings fringed with copious notes. He also made realistic body part models by injecting molten wax inside the cranium and the aortic valve and studied their shape and function. His work, however, progressed in fits and starts. Leonardo was hamstrung by the lack of cadavers (often the bodies of criminals) and a ban on human dissections issued by the Pope. His drawings remained out of sight for 400 years after his death in 1519, despite their revolutionary nature.
There is no need to worry about Papal wrath or corpse supply in the digital era. Anybody, from medical students and professionals to enthusiasts and artists, can view the inside of the human body in sharp detail with a new app called BodyMaps and launched today by GE and Healthline Networks. The app, which was specifically developed for the iPad’s Retina display, features 3D, high-resolution images of more than 1,000 body parts, tissues, bones and organs, all captured in a searchable index. Just like Leonardo’s multi-view models, users can rotate more than 30 body parts for a better look. They can also toggle between the male and female body.
BodyMaps also contains 200 videos covering various medical conditions, procedures, and treatments, as well as a mark-up tool. Doctors and nurses can draw directly on the images and highlight information for patients. The app is social media ready and users can share their mark-ups and notes through email and Facebook.
“For patients, the [visual] resources were very scarce all through the medical world,” says Gloria Horns, a nurse educator and well-known patient advocate at University of California, San Francisco. “You were creating your own, reinventing the wheel every time, and working with diagrams, charts, and flat images.”
Horns has cared for many organ transplant patients during her long career. She says that the new app “is really going to be a terrific tool for the nurses that are teaching these patients through the whole course of the illness.”
Says Horns: “They are really going to get it. It’s hard to describe how this will help us. It’s pretty phenomenal.”
The app, which was specifically developed for the iPad’s Retina display, features anatomy models of both sexes. BodyMaps features 3D, high-resolution images of more than 1,000 body parts, tissues, bones and organs, all captured in a searchable index. BodyMaps features 3D, high-resolution images of more than 1,000 body parts, tissues, bones and organs, all captured in a searchable index. Doctors and nurses can draw directly on the images and highlight information for patients.
Four years ago, Jason Disanto’s life took a skid. For a dozen years, Disanto, who is 38-years old and has an easy smile, had been a globe-trotting GE engineer bringing electricity to people in West Africa, China, and South America. “Basically, there would be a green field,” he says. “We would go in and leave behind a power plant.” Then in April 2009, at home in Atlanta, he dove into his backyard pool and rammed his head against the concrete bottom.
The accident left Disanto paralyzed from the neck down. But it failed to subdue his spirit and the curiosity and engineering drive that animated his life and career.
Disanto spent the next four months in the hospital, first in the trauma center and then at Atlanta’s Shepherd Center, a renowned specialty hospital for people with severe spine and brain injuries. He soon made new friends. A group of graduate students and engineers from the Bionics Lab at the nearby Georgia Institute of Technology were at Shepherd testing high-tech gear designed to makes simple tasks, like turning a wheelchair or moving a computer cursor, easier for quadriplegics.One such device was the tongue drive system. The technology tracks the position of a magnetic stud attached to the tongue and allows users to steer their wheelchairs by its movements. Disanto was intrigued.One member of the team was Xueliang Huo, a graduate student from Ningbo, a Chinese seaport where Disanto built a power plant. They hit it off. Disanto started working with the team, using the tongue drive to navigate an obstacle course and control a computer. “We had a lot of sessions on functionality and the esthetics we needed to develop,” Disanto says. “For them, it’s a little bit difficult to understand the little nuances and the little ins-and-outs that somebody like me can provide.” For example, he helped the team to improve the steering. “They had it very jagged and jerky,” he says. “When you move faster the drive is actually more smooth.”An early version of the tongue drive system tracked the magnetic stud with two plastic “booms” running down Disanto’s jawbones, like a couple of hands-free headsets. “When I moved my tongue to the top right-hand corner of my mouth, that would be a stop command,” he says. “If I go to the top left-hand corner of my mouth, that would make my wheelchair go forward. For the lower teeth, I can set up the left and right movement of the chair.”The booms were a good first step. “One of the problems we encountered with the earliest headset was that it could shift on a user’s head and the system would need to be recalibrated,” says Dr. Maysam Ghovanloo, founder of the Bionics Lab. Disanto helped Ghovanloo test a new system with sensors fitted tightly inside a dental retainer.The system links the retainer wirelessly via a Bluetooth with an iPhone running special software that interprets the tongue stud signals. Disanto can use the tongue drive to operate a computer, make calls, or flip a TV channel. “It’s an independence tool,” he says. “It’s also a little fashionable, I guess,” he says about his tongue stud. “I try to keep it discrete for business reasons.”Disanto has business in mind because he is back at work as product service engineer. GE has set him up with a modified desk, voice activated software, a head mouse to operate the computer, and flexible hours. He goes to work with his personal assistant. “There are a lot of things I did before that I don’t do too much of these days, such as car racing,” he says. “I used to travel a lot, and I’m slowly getting back into that.”
Jason Disanto with his family. His brother-in-law George Cowles III, sister Ginalyn Cowles, nephew George Cowles IV, father Joseph Disanto, and mom Victoria Disanto. The circuitry for the new intraoral Tongue Drive System developed at Georgia Tech is embedded in this dental retainer worn in the mouth (right). The system interprets commands from seven different tongue movements to operate a computer (left) or maneuver an electrically powered wheelchair. Image credit: Dr. Maysam Ghovanloo The dental appliance for the new intraoral tongue drive system contains magnetic field sensors mounted on its four corners that detect movement of a tiny magnet attached to the tongue. It also includes a rechargeable lithium-ion battery and an induction coil to charge the battery. Image credit: Dr. Maysam Ghovanloo Georgia Tech researchers designed this universal interface for the intraoral Tongue Drive System that attaches directly to a standard electric wheelchair. The interface boasts multiple functions: it not only holds the iPod, but also wirelessly receives the sensor data and delivers it to the iPod, connects the iPod to the wheelchair, charges the iPod, and includes a container where the dental retainer can be placed at night for charging. Image credit: Dr. Maysam Ghovanloo
The laser was still brand new in February 1963, when Harland Manchester, a past president of the National Association of Science Writers, weighed in The Reader’s Digest on the technology’s many applications. “The latest dramatic laser discoveries, made by General Electric, may someday make the electric light obsolete,” he wrote. “If these plans work out, the lamp of the future may be a speck of metal the size of a pencil-point which will be practically indestructible, will never burn out, and will convert at least ten times as much current into to light as does today’s bulb.”
That “lamp of the future,” of course, is what we now call the light-emitting diode, or LED. Manchester could make his prophesy because he interviewed GE physicist Nick Holonyak who in 1962, 50 years ago this fall, built the world’s first LED. Holonyak’s diode emitted only red light but it lit a research boom whose multi-colored offspring now illuminate homes and cities, the latest iPad “retina” screens, and flat-screen TVs. “Boy, those were the golden years,” says Holonyak, now 83 years old. “When I went in, I didn’t realize all that we were going to do. As far as I am concerned, the modern LED starts at GE.”
Holonyak, whose parents immigrated from what is now western Ukraine, enrolled to study electrical engineering at the University of Illinois. He took a course in atomic physics with John Bardeen, and in 1951 became Bardeen’s first doctoral student in his new semiconductor laboratory. “This is where everything started,” Holonyak says.
(Semiconductors, of course, are the lifeblood of modern electronics. They power everything from toys to Mars landers. In 1956, just five years later, Bardeen shared the Nobel Prize in Physics withWilliam Shockley and Walter Brattain for building the first semiconducting transistor. Bradeen won another Nobel in 1972.)
A 1962 group picture of Nick Holonyak (with glasses in the front) and his GE technical support team. In back: B. Hess (technician); S. Bevacqua (lab technician); F. Carranti (technician); C. Bielan (B.S. chemist); S. Lubowski (electronics technician).
Holonyak got his PhD in 1954. In 1957, after a year at Bell Labs and a two year stint in the Army, he joined GE’s research lab in Syracuse, New York. GE was already exploring semiconductor applications and building the forerunners of modern diodes called thyristors and rectifiers. At a GE lab in Schenectady, the scientist Robert Hall was trying to build the first diode laser. Hall, Holonyak and others noticed that semiconductors emit radiation, including visible light, when electricity flows through them. Holonyak and Hall were trying to “turn them on,” and channel, focus and multiply the light.
Hall was the first to succeed. He built the world’s first semiconductor laser. Without it, there would be no CD and DVD players today. “Nobody knew how to turn the semiconductor into the laser,” Holonyak says. “We arrived at the answer before anyone else.”
But Hall’s laser emitted only invisible, infrared light. Holonyak spent more time in his lab, testing, cutting and polishing his hand-made semiconducting alloys. In the fall of 1962, he got first light. “People thought that alloys were rough and turgid and lumpy,” he says. “We knew damn well what happened and that we had a very powerful way of converting electrical current directly into light. We had the ultimate lamp.”
Holonyak left GE in 1963 and started teaching at his alma mater, the University of Illinois. Today he is the John Bardeen professor of electrical and computer engineering and physics. He’s collected dozens of top prizes for his work, including the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, the Lemelson-MIT Prize, and membership in the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
The red LED “was just the beginning,” he says. “I knew that it was a very powerful thing and that these materials will become a source of white light. I thought it might be a decade. Little did I realize that it would take much longer than that.”
Last summer, GE opened one of the first solar carports for charging electric vehicles in Plainville, Connecticut. The idea has caught on. Solar-powered EV “pumps” have started popping up across North America, from Toronto to Google’s California headquarters, and new ones are being built in Europe. Filling stations powered by wind, however, remained elusive. Until now.<
GE has linked its fast DuraStation EV chargers, deployed in London during the Olympics to power a fleet of zero-emission cars, to a vertical wind turbine developed by New York’s Urban Green Energy. The result is the world’s first wind-powered EV charger. The system, called Sanya Skypump, can power up a Chevy Volt in four hours.The Skypump rises just 15 feet and can stand virtually anywhere, including dense cityscapes. The innovative blades on the 4-kilowatt wind turbine do not spin horizontally, say, like propellers on airplanes, but rotate along the vertical axis inside a five-foot radius. It take operators just a couple of hours to assemble the turbine. Similar UGE turbines already power homes and streetlamps around the world.GE and UGE installed the first Sanya Skypump outside Barcelona, Spain, but the partners will roll out more chargers later this year in the U.S. and Australia, at shopping malls, universities, and other busy locations.GE Energy’s Charles Elazar said that the system is part of GE’s goal to offer drivers as well as commercial customers “a range of easy-to-use, flexible systems to help make electric vehicles a practical, everyday reality.”
Brazil’s “Marvelous City,” Rio de Janeiro, is next up as the host of the 2016 Summer Olympics, after the London Games end on Sunday night. The Winter Olympics caravan, however, will drop anchor in the Russian Black Sea harbor of Sochi in just 30 months.
Ready for Rio: The Olympic Park in Rio de Janeiro will open in 2016. Image credit: GE and Aecon.
Like in London, GE will help Sochi and Rio handle the rigors of Olympic planning. In Sochi, for example, the organizers are building 11 sports venues, a new Olympic Village, and a mountain skiing center in the nearby Western Caucasus. Russia plans to transform Sochi from a summer resort (Maria Sharapova started playing tennis in the city) to an international year-round destination.
GE technology such as advanced power plants that use jet engines to generate electricity and burn cleaner natural gas will provide electricity for the Games, and for the city. Engineers call the technology “aeroderivative” turbines, and GE is the world’s largest aeroderivatives manufacturer.
The turbines serve in 73 countries, but they are made and assembled by American workers at GE plants in Cincinnati, Ohio, and in Houston, Texas. They support some 1,000 U.S. manufacturing and engineering jobs.
In many respects, the Rio Games will be an even larger event than London. The city will host 10,500 athletes, 3,000 more than the British capital. But less than a half of the facilities needed to accommodate them are open today, and Rio still needs to build 10 new venues.
GE will help. “GE is synonymous with innovation and technology,” says Reinaldo Garcia, GE Latin America president and CEO. Like in London, GE will take to Rio its expertise in transportation, power generation, lighting and healthcare. GE will provide “world-class infrastructure solutions and a sustainable legacy for future generations, as well as state-of-the art technology for the athletes.” Garcia says that GE is working today to build the Olympics of the future.
There are many risks involved in spaceflight. Eye damage is one of stealthiest. NASA has documented at least seven cases where astronauts with healthy eyes returned to Earth with altered vision. For some, vision loss lasts only a few weeks. Others must live with the condition for much longer and in some cases it may not resolve. The cause remains unknown, but one possible culprit is elevated intracranial pressure caused by an extended stay in microgravity.
Space Oddity: NASA documented at least seven cases where astronauts with healthy eyes returned to Earth with altered vision.
A prototype of a space ultrasound probe.
Scientists from GE Global Research are helping NASA find the cause. They are building a new ultrasound probe and measurement techniques for tracking changes in astronaut vision. The aim of this probe is to deliver real-time, three dimensional pictures showing the entire globe of the eye and potential changes in its structure and functionality. “Spaceflight causes fluid to pool in the upper body and head, resulting in increased pressure in the head and the optic nerve,” says Aaron Dentinger, an electrical engineer in the Ultrasound Systems Lab at GE Global Research. “That could trigger a change in the shape of the eye leading to vision problems. So far, mild vision changes have been observed, but the potential for permanent damage is a major concern on longer term missions, making real-time monitoring in space crucial so that NASA can evaluate treatments.”The scientists hope that the research could also advance the understanding of the underlying causes of traumatic brain injuries and lead to better monitoring of changes in brain pressure in people who sustain violent blows to the head.A commercially available GE ultrasound machine already operates on the International Space Station. GE’s Vivid q cardiovascular ultrasound system was delivered during the space shuttle’s final flight a year ago. The new research, which will last for three years, could add new insight to the use of the instrument to image blood vessels around the eye.
Where do tattoo needles come from? Once upon a time, there was a great inventor called the Wizard of Menlo Park. His name was Thomas Edison. One day, he built an electric pen designed to relieve clerks of the drudgery of duplicating documents. It had a sharp vibrating needle inside that traced text written on a sheet of paper. The needle punctured the text 50 times per second and turned it into a stencil. Ink would seep through the tiny holes and replicate the writing on sheets placed underneath. The invention, patented in 1876, didn’t exactly catch on, but it presaged the copy machine and, in the hands of artists, revolutionized tattooing.
Browsing through Gene Barretta’s fascinating new illustrated book on Edison, Timeless Thomas: How Thomas Edison Changed Our Lives, there’s barely an industry that has not been touched by Edison’s genius. The book is primarily for kids, but parents and grandparents will find inside much that is new and surprising. Yes, Edison built the light bulb, but he also developed an alkaline battery for the first electric vehicles, and launched the movie business in his Menlo Park lab by building the first film studio, called Black Maria, and the first motion picture camera. Less glamorous, but equally revolutionary were his power plants, cement kilns, and vending machines.Barretta does a great job bringing all of these inventions to life. He juxtaposes each colorful page dedicated to an Edison idea with a page showing the invention’s modern use. Timeless Thomas is Barretta’s third book dedicated to inventors. He has written and illustrated books about Benjamin Franklin, Now & Ben: The Modern Inventions of Benjamin Franklin, and Leonardo da Vinci, Neo Leo: The Ageless Ideas of Leonardo da Vinci. He says that Edison belongs in their company. “He has been an idol of mine and I wanted to give the kids the same thrill,” Barretta says. “I wanted them to get acquainted with the world they are living in.”
Before there was Hollywood, there was Menlo Park. Edison developed thetechnology behind the first movies.
The election season is gathering steam and false allegations that GE is outsourcing American jobs have again hit the blogosphere. Here are the facts: Since 2009, GE has announced plans to create more than 15,500 American jobs and is building 15 new factories in the U.S. Just in 2011, GE added 10,000 new jobs. These high-value manufacturing jobs will produce jet engines, turbines, appliances and other goods.
Just last week, GE opened a new $170 million factory in Schenectady, New York, that will produce next-generation industrial batteries and employ 450 workers. The business was born from a single idea, like a Silicon Valley start-up, inside GE Global Research labs in nearby Niskayuna.
In Texas, GE Energy’s global order book is helping local manufacturing firms grow their business. Listen to Randy Bentley, vice president at Numerical Precision Inc., a machining business based in Crosby, Texas. Four years ago, as much of the global economy fell into a rut, but Bentley added a second shift. “We’ve been running two 12-hour shifts close to five years now with no slowdown in sight,” he says. GE is his biggest customer.
In Michigan, Grand Rapids-based ProgressiveSurface has supplied GE Aviation with high-tech “special process” machines that make jet engine parts tougher and blades more durable. “The company really took off in the 80’s, when we started to do aerospace work,” says Jim Whalen, Progressive’s vice president of sales and marketing. “That’s when GE became a customer.” Progressive has since doubled the number of workers from 50 to 105 fabricators, machinists, electricians, and engineers, and grew annual revenues to $35 million.
In March, GE opened a new $38 million manufacturing plant in Louisville. Workers at the factory make high-tech GeoSpring hybrid water heaters whose production GE repatriated from China. “Being able to make a new thing in the U.S., that’s a big morale booster,” says process operator Patti Beyl. “It gives me a lot of pride. Three years ago we didn’t even know if we we’re going to be here.” The plant, which employs 600 workers, is part of a $1 billion drive to manufacture new appliances in the U.S. and create 1,300 jobs.
GE is also investing $1 billion in a software center of excellence in California, creating 300 jobs.
These are just a few recent examples. There is simply no question about GE’s key role in the American economy. A recent study by the independent research firm TrippUmbach found that for every 10 direct GE jobs, GE supports additional 52 jobs in the U.S. Added up, GE is indirectly supporting one out of every 208 jobs in the U.S. With demand for GE products rising around the world, GE’s global customer base makes it possible to create jobs in the U.S. and help grow domestic businesses Bentley’s Numerical Precision.
The study also found that GE, its employees, and business partners add $166 billion per year to the U.S. economy.
But GE’s reach goes deeper than economic data. The study estimated that GE employees also gave $74 million to charitable groups. In total, the GE family over $259 million and workers volunteered 325,000 hours of their time.
Jet travel is second nature to us, but not too long ago the Jet Age was a top secret project that fit inside a drab wooden workshop on a back factory lot outside Boston.
In 1942, exactly 70 years ago, a handful of GE engineers working non-stop for ten months built America’s first jet engine. Their mission was to win the war, but they ended up shrinking the world. “They called us the Hush-Hush Boys,” says Joseph Sorota, who is 93 and one of the last living veterans of the project.
Sorota was a 20-year old engineering graduate from Northeastern University when he joined the program as employee No. 5. He had been hired at GE’s plant in Lynn River, Massachusetts, to build advanced propeller engines for high-altitude bombers flying missions over Europe during World War II. “One day I got called into the main office,” Sorota recalls. “There was a man I had never met who asked me what I did on the way home, who I talked to, and whether I stopped at the bar. When he identified himself as a man from the FBI, I almost died. I didn’t do anything wrong but I thought he was there maybe to arrest me. It was the war.”
They called them the Hush-Hush Boys: A team of GE engineers stand next to GE’s I-A jet engine. In 1942, they launched America in into the Jet Age.
After the interrogation, the man told Sorota to follow another stranger to a small building at the back of Lynn River’s industrial lot. “They told me that this was where I was going to work,” Sorota says. “The FBI man warned me that if I gave away any secrets, the penalty was death. That’s the way he said it. He was serious.”
When Sorota first entered his new workplace, “there was nothing going on at all. It was just a plain concrete building.”
But that soon changed. In September 1941, his new team received a present from England It was one of the world’s first jet engines developed by British Royal Air Force officer Sir Frank Whittle. Because of GE’s extensive experience with turbo superchargers and steam turbines, the Air Force picked the company to improve on Whittle’s design and build America’s first jet engine.
(Whittle is recognized as the inventor of the jet engine, along with Germany’s Hans von Ohain. They developed their first prototypes independently in the late 1930s. They did not meet in person until 1966. Whittle was knighted for his work on the jet engine.)
Joseph Sorota, 93, was one of the Hush-Hush Boys. He is one of the last living veterans of the jet engine development project.
Sorota and his teammates first had to get their workshop ready. “The work was top secret, we couldn’t call in the maintenance department,” he says. “I was knocking down walls with a jackhammer when we had to make more room for a test chamber.”
When they unpacked Whittle’s engine, new problems popped up. “We didn’t have the right tools,” he says. “Our tools didn’t fit the screws because they were on the metric system. We had to grind our tools open a little more to get inside.”
The U.S. War Department picked GE to build the country’s first jet engine because of its research and innovation in turbine technology.
The teams, aided by Whittle’s blueprints and a couple of British engineers, started working non-stop. There were 15 people on Sorota’s shift. He was designing the engine’s air flow paths. Occasionally, he would take trips to other secret sites and study engines salvaged from German V-2 rocket bombs that were raining on England during the Blitz.
In March 1942, just five months into the project, the engineers wheeled their first engine, called I-A, inside a concrete cell called “Fort Knox” for a text. But it stalled. “We could only run it for a short while,” Sorota says. “We took it apart, put it together again, and ran more tests. We went on with designing.” The redesigned the compressor and started to achieve higher thrust.
The GE team started working on a jet engine developed by Sir Frank Whittle.
In the summer of 1942, 10 months after they started, GE shipped the first working jet engines to the Muroc Army Air Field, in California’s Mojave Desert. The Air Force strapped them to Bell’s experimental XP-59 aircraft called Airacomet. On October 2, 1942, the first American jet climbed to 6,000 feet.
Sorota did not see the maiden flight. He was busy at Lynn, perfecting the engines and teaching Air Force mechanics how to fix them inside a public school commandeered by the government.
In 1945, the Air Force ordered Sorota to go to the Pacific with a squadron of Lockheed’s P-80 Shooting Star aircraft, the Air Force’s first real fighter jets. The Shooting Star was powered by a brand new GE J33 jet engine and became the first U.S. plane to break the 500 mph barrier. “They gave me papers showing that I was involved in the service even though I was still a GE employee,” Sorota says. “They said that if [the Japanese] captured me without military papers, they could say that I was a spy and I could be shot.”
But Sorota never left. Another secret project ended the war. “They dropped the bomb on Hiroshima and the war was over,” he says. “I was looking forward to going. I was in my twenties and all excited.”
The first GE jet engine powered Bell’s experimental XP-59 aircraft.
Good engineers have many handy tools hanging from their belts. Jeff Bizub has a degree in music theory. “Music theory is the engineering behind the art,” Bizub says. He used the theory to build a software version of his ear. It listens for knocking sounds inside massive GE engine cylinders. The sounds herald errant gas explosions that can cause cracks and severe engine damage. Bizub transcribed his knocking recordings into notes and set them in a short musical piece titled Knock Music.
Knock, Knock: Jeff Bizub turned sounds of engine trouble into music. “When I was hearing the knocking frequencies, I was hearing notes,” he says.
Bizub is a senior product engineer at GE’s Waukesha engine plant. But he also holds a degree in music theory from the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music. A few years ago, he tried to solve a problem afflicting large spark ignition engines. These engines work the same way as the engine inside ordinary passenger cars, but are much larger. The Waukesha 275GL* gas engine, for example, generates 4,800 horsepower and clocks in at 66,000 pounds. It can power a small power plant. The cylinders of such engines are so large, almost 11 inches in diameter, that the heat and pressure inside can ignite hot gas squeezed against the wall of the cylinder before the flame from the sparkplug at the center gets to it. That’s when trouble starts. There are now two flame “fronts” traveling in opposite directions, one from the wall and the other from the center. When these fronts crash into each other, they make the walls of the cylinder vibrate, emitting a characteristic knocking sound. This is called “knock.” Uncontrolled knocking can cause dangerous piston and engine damage, not to mention less power and more emissions.Engineers used to listen for just the one frequency of the knocking sound but Bizub, who has perfect hearing, had a different idea. “The engine is like a musical instrument,” he says. “The shape of a flute or a clarinet plays a dramatic role in the sound they produce.” What if he could use music theory to decipher and tame knocking? Bizub started running tests with an engine going into knock in GE’s Waukesha engineering lab. “I put my ear against the cylinder and could hear even with earmuffs on the multiple frequencies inside,” he says. “I knew that there was a center frequency related to bore size, but as with any instrument you’ll have multiple vibrations that will occur.”Some of the knocking frequencies were inaudible to an untrained ear. But what if he built a machine with perfect pitch that could hear knock and also ignore false positives. “The first line of defense is to determine very accurately when it is true knock and not some other noise,” he says. Bizub convinced his boss to buy a 16-channel digital recorder in a music store for $1,200. He also purchased a suite of music software to analyze the spectrum and the frequency of the knocking sounds, and a 64-band equalizer to amplify the inaudible frequencies related to knock. “The idea was to capture these sounds as wave files, analyze them with the music software, and plot out what’s going on,” he says.Bizub and a team of researchers used the results to write industrial software and algorithms that now sit inside a module attached to every Waukesha engine, listen for knocking, and adjust and retard ignition if they hear the tell-tale knock sound. The device is called Engine System Manager* (ESM). The ESM has much better signal to noise ratio that standard methods. It detects knocks more accurately and at lower, less dangerous amplitudes. It keeps the engine humming, adjusting ignition timing proportionally to the severity of the knocking.But Bizub did not stop there. “When I was hearing the knocking frequencies, I was hearing notes,” he says. “When you study composition music theory, you work on ear training and transcribe sounds in your head to musical pitches so you can understand them further.” He took engine knocking samples, one from a big bore rich burn engine and the other from a lean burn machine, added some echo for ambiance, and called the score Knock Music. “Like electronic music or early R&B rap music, I was stringing samples together and creating something new,” he says. “I can’t take credit for writing the music because really the engines wrote it.”* Trademark of the General Electric Company
Kenny Glasgow has never set foot in an executive suite but that didn’t stop him from flying to work. In the 1960s, Glasgow was fixing jet engines at GE’s Strother Field plant in Kansas, and saved up wages for a small Cessna 150 two-seater plane. “One fall the Arkansas River flooded and the road to Strother was closed for a several days,” Glasgow says. “I had about a quarter of a mile of alfalfa just east of the house. You could land down there when it wasn’t too tall. So I just flew to work.”
Glasgow gets things done. He spent almost four decades at GE, getting in on the ground level as a “heavy helper” in the maintenance department, and soaring to a leadership job on GE’s classified work for the B-2 stealth bomber. “The company raised my family,” he says. “It turned out to be heaven sent.”Glasgow, now 75, grew up on a farm six miles from Strother that his grandfather settled in 1871. “Wrench turning was not all that unfamiliar,” he says. “On the farm, you kept most of your things running yourself.”He joined the NAVY from high school, and after active duty as a radioman on the Warning Star surveillance planes he found work on an oil rig. When the rig shut down, “my brother and I were looking in the paper for something to do to get groceries,” Glasgow says.GE’s Strother engine repair and assembly plant was a decade old when the Glasgow brothers started, earning $1.78 ½ per hour. “That was a pretty good wage at the time,” Glasgow says. He started by working nightshifts, drilling holes in concrete hangar floors to install machinery. But he soon advanced and started servicing and testing GE’s J73 and J85 jet engines. He learned on the job, from technical manuals and from other workers. “The foremen knew because most of them had done the job before,” Glasgow says. “They came through the ranks.”He also learned from engineers at the plant. “It took me quite a while to be able to listen at the level they were talking, but once I caught on, they were like a walking book of knowledge,” Glasgow says.In the late 1960s, Glasgow bought the Cessna and took his family on flying expeditions. One of his daughters, Kathryn, was smitten. “I remember spending weekends polishing that thing,” she says. “It was our family time. My father swears that aviation is in our blood.”Kathryn got introduced to GE and Strother as a girl. “We’d bring dad dinner and get to spend a little more time with him,” she says. When it was her turn to graduate from high school, she went straight to the plant. “I don’t know how to explain it, but I always knew that I wanted to work here,” Kathryn says.Like her father, Kathryn started at the bottom and now leads a team that repairs engines for Apache and Black Hawk helicopters. “There weren’t many women here when I was hired,” she says. “My dad was a protector, he was not afraid to say something to somebody.”Glasgow taught her how to fix airplanes, shape tools, and find new solutions to problems. “He expected a lot, he wanted you to know a lot,” she says. When Kathryn decided to apply for an inspector job, she says, her father challenged her to read a measuring tool, the C – micrometer. “She could not do it, but by golly she learned quickly,” Glasgow laughs.Glasgow retired from Strother in 1998, when the B-2 work was over. With more than 800 employees, the plant is one of the largest employers on Cowley County, Kansas. “This is a small community,” Glasgow says. “It’s like a family operation.”
Kenny Glasgow with his daughter Kathryn. “My father swears that aviation is in our blood,” Kathryn says.