In the twentieth century, many technology-based corporations began as "spin-offs" of great research universities. But one of the 19th century's seminal technology-based companies, Thomson-Houston, was a high-school spin-off. Its founder was a professor at Philadelphia's Central High School, Elihu Thomson. Its first engineer was Thomson's star pupil, Edwin W. Rice, Jr.
Coming from a well-to-do family, Rice could have gone on to college in 1880. But the prospect of continuing his collaboration with Thomson attracted him more. "He has been my professor ever since I met him away back in the year 1876," Rice later wrote. "What a mine of knowledge ready to be explored, as willing to give as I was to receive its richness!"
Together, the two young men developed an entire range of electrical equipment, from generators to meters. Their enterprise survived early financial difficulties, and grew to compete on even terms with Edison's. Rice contributed valuable inventions. His voltage regulator was used for years on Thomson-Houston dynamos. But his real talents were in the management of manufacturing. At the age of 22, he became the factory manager of Thomson-Houston's Lynn, Massachusetts plant.
With the formation of General Electric in 1892, Rice got the chance to exercise his administrative talents on a larger stage. He was GE's first technical director, and from 1896, vice-president in charge of manufacturing and engineering.
In this post, he recognized the need to supplant the empirical techniques of the Edison-Thomson era with modern science and mathematics. In 1892, he was favorably impressed by a brilliant paper delivered at a meeting of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers by a young German immigrant named Charles Proteus Steinmetz. He tried to lure Steinmetz away from his employer, Rudolph Eickemeyer, to work for GE. That failing, he convinced GE's president Charles A. Coffin that the combination of Eickemeyer's patents and the genius of Steinmetz ought to be purchased. Under Rice's aegis, Steinmetz rose to the post of Consulting Engineer. And, at the urging of Steinmetz, Rice founded the GE Research Laboratory and hired Willis R. Whitney as its first director.
In contrast to some of the outgoing, dynamic leaders of the early electrical industry, Rice was reserved and judicial in temperament. In 1913 he succeeded Charles A. Coffin as president of GE. Coffin, however, recognized Rice's limitations as a businessman, and continued to hold the company reins as chairman of the board. But throughout the electrical industry, Rice was widely respected as both an electrical pioneer and an industrial statesman.