Though it’s long since entered the canon of generic American iconography, there’s more to Norman Rockwell’s famous Thanksgiving painting than meets the eye — as suggested by its title, “Freedom From Want.” Rockwell was inspired to create the artwork by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union address, in which — at the beginning of the year that would end with the United States’ entry into World War II — the 32nd president laid out the four fundamental rights of his political vision: in addition to freedom from want, Roosevelt cited freedom of speech, freedom of worship and freedom from fear. Rockwell rendered all of these in a series of oil paintings that ran on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post for four consecutive weeks in 1943, while the war was raging.
Rockwell was a world-acclaimed artist who’d been painting for decades — including for the GE marketing department, which hired him in the 1920s to help promote the company’s Mazda electric lamps. Like the drawings that Dr. Seuss made during his own term as a GE adman, Rockwell’s are instantly recognizable: homespun images such as a young man slouched over a book in a room that’s dark but for the illumination of a single lamp. Its title is “What a Difference a Light Makes.”
GE’s technology lit the Thanksgiving table but in the postwar period, the company’s innovations proliferated throughout the household. In the 1950s William H. Sahloff, who ran GE’s housewares division, commissioned a consumer survey on the “most unpleasant jobs in the home.” The results confirmed a hunch Sahloff had: Folks hated carving the roast beast.
Sahloff, who’d previously spearheaded the development of the electric can opener and the electric toothbrush — what a difference electricity makes! — then set his team of GE engineers on creating an electric carving knife, which hit the market in the mid-1960s. First focusing on a device with a single sharp blade, the engineers couldn’t achieve the slicing action they wanted; that’s when they got the idea of two serrated reciprocating blades powered by a 120-volt electrical motor. That turkey never stood a chance.
(Sahloff had a restless mind and, apparently, a love for the holidays: He was also instrumental in getting Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer his star turn on television.)
These days, GE’s scientists and engineers are focused on innovations of a different magnitude. They include an offshore wind turbine that can generate enough electricity to power 16,000 European homes (which, together with GE’s latest breast-imaging technology, ended up on Time magazine’s Best Inventions 2019 list last week), the world’s most powerful commercial jet engine and — last but not least — a mechanical device that can hurl a pumpkin about as fast as an airliner at cruising speed.
Of course, the pumpkin hurler wasn’t an officially sanctioned GE endeavor, but rather the after-hours project of GE molecular biologist Daniel Collins, a past participant in the annual World Championship Punkin Chunkin, which recently moved from Delaware to Illinois. Collins and his friends are the brains behind “Chucky 3,” a 5-ton torsion catapult that once tossed a pumpkin 3,636 feet — a little over two-thirds of a mile — at speeds approaching 500 miles per hour. Now that’s ingenuity.