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The Wisdom of the Crowd: Edison’s Birthday Marks National Inventors’ Day

Steve Wozniak, who built the first Apple computer, has this advice for inventors: “You are going to be best able to design revolutionary products if you are working on your own,” he writes in his memoir iWoz. “Not on a committee. Not on a team.”

GE engineer Peter de Bock begs to differ. “Innovation is about talking to people, connecting with people,” de Bock says. “It’s about knowing what’s out there, what’s needed.” Recently, De Bock applied his method to build an ingenious cooling device that could launch a new generation of thinner, quieter, and more powerful laptops and tablets like Apple’s iPad.

Talking to other engineers at GE Global Research where he works, De Bock learned that one of his colleagues built a new thin apparatus for cooling jet engines. The device did not have any bearings, fans, or electric motors, the parts that can break and cause problems. Instead, it used a vibrating sliver of special ceramic material attached to two metal plates. The ceramic expands and contracts as electrical power flows through, making the nickel plates work like a pair of lungs. (Engineers call this effect “piezoelectricity.”)

The device got him thinking. “There is a very clear trend. Consumer electronics are not getting faster anymore, they are getting thinner,” he says. “There is a need for a new system that can provide airflow in a very thin space. The tablets of the future will have a system like this built in.” De Bock reworked the design and shrunk the height of the device to just 3 millimeters, the size of two stacked quarters, and half the size of comparable cooling fans. The device, which De Bock calls “dual piezoelectric cooling jets,” could add as much as 30 minutes of extra battery life to laptops. “We bring a lot of people to our lab, listen and learn about technology in new ways,” De Bock explains. “Innovation is about knowing the field, knowing what’s out there, what’s needed.”

De Bock’s lab is in Niskayuna, New York, a suburb of Schenectady where Thomas Edison opened the first GE research lab a century ago. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan proclaimed, February 11, Edison’s birthday, as National Inventors’ Day. “Key to our future success will be the dedication and creativity of inventors,” Reagan said.

De Bock, and hundreds of other GE inventors like him, are nothing if not dedicated and creative. De Bock is a ten year veteran of the GRC. He first came there as an intern from the University of Twente in his native Holland, where he studied mechanical engineering. “I really enjoyed the atmosphere and the culture of the research center,” he says. At the time he worked on huge 140-megawatt power generators for GE Power & Water, the engineering opposite of his cooling device. “I’ve done everything,” he laughs. “When it was time for me to graduate, I applied for a job.”

GE research labs now employ 3,000 people around the world, including 1,125 PhDs. Besides Niskayuna, GE has labs also in San Ramon, California, Shanghai, Rio de Janeiro, Bangalore, and Munich. De Bock and his colleagues are tackling a long list problems, from new materials for jet engines and gas turbines to molecular diagnostics, better batteries, and software analytics for turbines and oil & gas rigs that crunch data coming over the Industrial Internet. GE spends annually $6 billion on R&D. 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.

Over the years, two GE employees have received Nobel Prizes and three other Nobelists spent time working at the GRC. Their GE colleagues have built machines and devices that revolutionized how we live, from the first U.S. jet engine and the first full-body MRI machine, to the invention of the LED. Last year, De Bock’s friend and GRC colleague Manoj Shah received the prestigious Nikola Tesla Award for improving on the electric motor. Last week, three GE engineers were elected into the National Academy of Engineering.

Working so close to Edison’s legacy, Edison’s original desk is in the lobby of DeBock’s building, he has his own thoughts on innovation. “You have to be the biggest champion of the technology as well as its biggest critic,” he says. “Because only then you can see the shortcomings and try to work on those as you move the technology forward.”

Peter de Bock helped design a cooling device that could lead to superthin laptops and tablets. The limits of the human mind know no boundary. All the inventors in our slideshow had a creative vision and went for it. Celebrate Inventor’s Day with GE on February 11th. Tweet what you want to invent using #IWantToInvent! The sky’s the limit. imageNick Holonyak Jr. built the world’s first LED. imageManoj Shah built a better electric motor. imageThe Hush-Hush Boys built the first American jet engine. imageThe Slide Rule Sisters helped build the first supersonic jet engine.

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