GE once hired St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Bob Gibson to throw a fastball through a piece high-tech glass. Gibson pitched six innings and failed. GE engineer Ivar Giaever tried something similar on the atomic scale and succeeded. He figured out how to pitch electrons through a thin layer of an insulating material, a technique called electron tunneling. The discovery helped GE build the world’s first full-body magnetic resonance machine (MRI) and earned Giaever a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1973.
October is Nobel Prize season and GE researchers have scored two Nobels of their own. Besides Giaever, GE scientist Irving Langmuir won a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1932 for his research on lamp filaments. His work allowed GE to take the first images of blood vessels.
Nobel-winning physicists Richard Feynman, who coined the word nanotechnology, and Ernest O. Lawrence, who invented the cyclotron and whose name graces two U.S. national laboratories (Lawrence Livermore and Lawrence Berkeley), spent time at GE as research fellows. Martin Perl, who won a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1995 for the discovery of the tau lepton elementary particle, worked at GE as a chemical engineer for two years.
The awards are no accident. GE spends annually $6 billion on R&D. The company develops innovative machines, technologies, and materials, but it also grows its own research talent. “In a company like GE, it was clear that an engineering degree gave you a vast opportunity,” Giaever said. “I got really fired up by that.” He joined an in-house training course for engineers and got his Nobel-winning “tunneling” idea while splitting time between GE’s research lab in Schenectady, New York, and classes at nearby Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute(RPI), where he was working on a PhD. in physics. “When I grew up in Norway, believe it or not, I knew the name Schenectady,” Giaever told a local paper. “I could even spell it.”
Thomas Edison moved the company’s machine works to Schenectady in 1886, and GE opened its research labs close by in 1900. Early visitors to Edison’s labs included radio telegraph inventor Guglielmo Marconi, Niels Bohr, who cracked the structure of the atom, I.P. Pavlov famous for his conditioned dogs, and other Nobel winners.
GE research labs now employ 3,000 people, including 1,125 PhDs. The global research center is still in New York, but GE has labs also in San Ramon, California, Shanghai, Rio de Janeiro, Bangalore, and Munich. Just in 2011, GE researchers received more than 3,600 patents. All this innovation is helping to create new jobs, and companies. GE’s newest business, GE Energy Storage, makes high-tech Durathon batteries in a new $170 million plant just outside Schenectady.
Then there is the flip side. “Unfortunately, most people take Nobel Prize winner seriously, and that includes some of the Nobel winners themselves,” Giaever told a GE newsletter. “Because I’m a winner, people tend to think that I should have some unique insights into everything, from the Middle East crisis to every conceivable scientific field. Of course, I don’t know any more about them than anyone else, so I’ve got to watch what I say – which I’m not very good at.”
Ivan Giaever in front of Irving Langmuir’s portrait. Giaever at the Nobel awards ceremony in Stockholm with his prize. Giaever’s Nobel acceptance telegram. Irving Langmuir received his Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1932. Langmuir’s Nobel Prize replica.