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GE At 125: These Pioneers Helped Shape The Way We Live [Video]

Tomas Kellner
December 27, 2016
GE will be 125 years old in 2017, and the company has shaped many aspects of modernity we now take for granted. Over the last few years, we’ve visited pioneers such as Nick Holonyak, who developed in GE labs the first LED that emitted visible light, Joseph Sorota, who helped build the first American jet engine at GE Aviation, and Arnold Spielberg, who designed the computer that ran the first version of BASIC, the programming language that helped launch home computing. For good measure, we throw in a profile of Don Wetzel, who used GE jet engines to build the world’s fastest jet-powered train. Take a look.

The Birth Of The Jet Age

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The year was 1941. World War II was raging in Europe and Nazi bombers over London were as common as rain. It was also when a group of GE engineers in Lynn, Massachusetts, received a secret present from His Majesty King George VI. Inside several crates were parts of the first jet engine successfully built and flown by the Allies. The engineers’ job was to improve on the handmade machine, bring it to mass production and help England win the war. Joseph Sorota, 96, is likely the last living member of the team. We visited him in March. Watch our video.


The First Spielberg Blockbuster

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One day, when he was still barely a teenager, the film director Steven Spielberg came to visit his father, Arnold, at work. It was the late 1950s, and the elder Spielberg was building computers for GE in Phoenix. His designs included a revolutionary machine that a group of computer scientists at Dartmouth College later used to write BASIC, the programming language that revolutionized personal computing. We visited Arnold Spielberg in May.


LED There Be Light

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GE engineer Robert Hall invented the semiconductor diode laser in 1962, and Nick Holonyak quickly followed with the first practical LED emitting visible red light a few months later. Hall, who died this fall, and Holonyak, 87, almost felt the glow of a Nobel Prize in 2014. That year, the Nobel committee awarded the Nobel Prize in physics to a trio of scientists, two Japanese and one American, for inventing in the 1990s “efficient blue light-emitting diodes [LEDs], which has enabled a bright, energy-saving white light source.” We talked to Holonyak in 2012.


Leaving On A Jet Train

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On a clear day in July 1966, New York Central Railroad engineer Don Wetzel and his team boarded a specially modified Buddliner railcar, No. M-497. Bolted to the roof above them were two GE J47-19 jet engines. Wetzel throttled up the engines and tore down a length of track from Butler, Indiana, to Stryker, Ohio, at almost 184 mph, piloting the experimental vehicle into the record books as the world’s fastest jet-powered train. Today, the M-497 is still America’s fastest train and the world’s speediest self-propelled locomotive. We visited Wetzel in 2015.