Willis R. Whitney, 1900
first director of GE's research laboratory
"It is bad engineering to assume that a thing is perfected."
-- Willis R. Whitney, 1935
Willis R. Whitney came to General Electric in 1900 to lead the company's new
research laboratory. The lab, originally housed in a small shack behind the home of
scientist Charles Steinmetz, grew into a major research institution by the time Whitney
retired in 1932.
An early project for the new lab was to find a way to improve the incandescent lamp.
For twenty years GE had been producing lamps made with a carbonized cellulose
filament based on work done by England's Joseph Swan. While simple to operate, the
energy-efficiency of these lamps was rather poor, a bit over 3 lumens per watt, and
many inventors were working on designs that would emit more light for the same amount
of power. Also, many of the initial patents granted to Edison had expired allowing
commercial competition to grow.
The major competitive threat came from Europe where high energy costs motivated
research into more efficient lamps. Lamps using metal filaments rather than carbon
appeared on the market in 1898 and many additional devices were in development.
Whitney began experimenting with the newly invented electric-resistance furnace --
carbonizing filaments at higher temperatures than had been previously possible.
He discovered that, when prepared at very high temperatures [give figure] carbon
filaments took on metal-like properties. [this included a positive resistance
characteristic]. By operating the filaments at higher temperatures than regular carbon
filaments, Whitney could obtain higher efficiency while continuing to use existing
production equipment. The new lamps were marketed in 1904 as "General Electric
Metallized" or "GEM" lamps.
GEM lamps soon began replacing ordinary carbon lamps. While at 4 lumens per
watt they were the most efficient carbon lamps made, the gain in efficiency was only
minor compared to the 8 lumens per watt given by the first generation of tungsten
filament lamps that were marketing in Europe that same year. Also, GE and other
makers ultimately regretted their strategy of marketing the lamps as "efficient."
Consumers became confused when GE's tungsten lamps became available in the early
1910s and were also sold as "efficient." By then customers were faced with buying
expensive tungsten lamps, or cheaper GEM lamps -- both of which were touted as
efficient. Whitney's GEM lamp was -- at the urging of lamp makers -- legislated out of
existence during World War 1 as part of an effort to ration scarce raw materials.