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At some point during Thomas Edison’s trip to Wyoming to witness the total solar eclipse of 1878, he mused about the power of electricity to change the world. The “tumbling rivers of the west,” harvest-laden wagons in Iowa “[crying] out for electric trains” and other sights made Edison wonder “about ways of harnessing electric power for work and light,” Edmund Morris writes in “Edison,” a biography of the inventor and GE founder.
Morris writes that “within 24 hours of returning home, Edison had sketched something he labeled ‘Electric Light,’ although it looked more like battery-operated thumbscrew.” In little more than a year, Edison perfected that thumbscrew and started work on the first practical light bulbs that could illuminate homes and streets. Those lights connected to other Edison innovations — a power grid that drew electricity from generators inside a central power station — which together changed the world. They found a home at GE, which Edison co-founded in 1892.
On May 26, GE announced its agreement to sell its lighting business to Savant Systems Inc., combining the business unit with a company writing the next chapter in lighting innovation. Financial details of the transaction were not disclosed.
“Today’s transaction is another important step in the transformation of GE into a more focused industrial company,” says H. Lawrence Culp Jr., GE chairman and CEO. “Our Lighting colleagues will join a fast-growing leader in home automation that shares their passion for bringing the future to light.”
Culp says the proposed transaction will allow GE Lighting to “continue its legacy of innovation, while we at GE will continue to advance the infrastructure technologies that are core to our company and draw on the roots of our founder, Thomas Edison.”
GE founder Thomas Edison not only built the first practical light bulb, but also the dynamos to generate electricity and the power grid to distribute it. Image credit: Museum and Innovation and Science Schenectady. Top image credit: GE Lighting.
Savant Systems, based in Hyannis, Massachusetts, was founded in 2005 by the engineer, entrepreneur and investor Robert P. Madonna. With both software and hardware, the company has quickly grown to become a market leader with technologies and innovations that are defining the future of lighting and smart homes. Its products include intelligent lighting, smart security and climate systems, whole-house entertainment and other solutions. “Savant’s mission from the start has been to create the number one smart home brand in the world, and I am confident that the acquisition of GE Lighting’s long history of industry leadership continues, while bringing exceptional value and reliability to retail partners and consumers as the number one intelligent lighting company worldwide.”
Through the deal, which is expected to close in mid-2020, Savant gains long-term license to a storied brand as well as lighting expertise and access to the retail smart home market. Light bulbs and power plants have been part of the GE story since 1882, when Edison turned on the first power grid in New York City, electrifying a section of lower Manhattan. Some of that history has been captured by no lesser lights than Norman Rockwell and Maxfield Parrish, who painted posters promoting GE’s popular Mazda lamps. In 1935, GE lights made history by illuminating the first Major League Baseball night game in Cincinnati. In 1962, GE Research engineer Nick Holonyak Jr. invented the first practical light-emitting diode (LED) in GE labs, a breakthrough that has changed the lighting industry. In recent years, the company partnered with Google to build a connected light bulb that responds to voice commands.
In the early 1960s, building on breakthroughs in laser technology made by GE Research engineer Robert Hall, Nick Holonyak Jr. invented the first practical light-emitting diode (LED). Image credit: GE Reports.
Innovation has also marched on in the power generation sectors, as machines that generate and distribute electricity remain a key piece of GE’s industrial core. Engineers have evolved Edison’s early dynamos into turbines that power the world’s most efficient power plants. Even Edison’s direct current grid is making a powerful comeback as a more efficient way to transfer electricity across long distances and from remote sources, like offshore wind farms. This technology, called high-voltage direct current, or HVDC, is now part of GE Renewable Energy.
Edison’s ingenuity still continues to shine through the ages. In 2012, employees at GE Lighting’s NELA Park headquarters in East Cleveland, Ohio, opened a 100-year-old time capsule that included five light bulbs. Engineers cleaned one of the bulbs, screwed it into a socket, and powered it up to 60 volts. It emitted a soft glow, an incandescent echo of an era that gave birth to technology that still keeps evolving.
In 1935, GE lights made history by illuminating the first Major League Baseball night game in Cincinnati. Image credit: Museum of Innovation and Science Schenectady.