David Sarnoff

David Sarnoff is the father of broadcasting. Sarnoff was a Jewish immigrant who became his family’s breadwinner at age 15. He worked as a Morse Code operator, rising up the ranks to become a supervisor. Eventually, he transitioned to radio to transmit messages over long distances.

Early radio technology was for point-to-point communications, like a long-distance walkie-talkie. AT&T used it for long-distance telephone calls and companies communicated with ships. Sarnoff saw radio as a one-to-many technology, beaming entertainment and news directly into houses. The idea was a breakthrough.

GE acquired Sarnoff’s employer, American Marconi, and renamed it the Radio Corporation of America, RCA. Sarnoff proposed that RCA focus on broadcasting. They ignored him until his broadcast of a boxing match, in 1921, proved wildly popular. Interest was strong and drove the sales of radios. Other RCA executives then understood that content would drive radio sales.

Early Radio

There were early sporadic radio broadcasters but most were banned during WWI on national security grounds. After the war ended, in 1919, broadcast networks began to spring up all around the US. The US issued commercial broadcast licenses throughout the 1920s.

One of the first uses of radio voice broadcasts was education. Tufts College professors broadcast lectures in 1922. Other colleges followed.

Commercialization began in earnest when RCA spawned the first real network, the National Broadcasting Company, NBC. They began broadcasting in 1926, using telephone lines to connect multiple stations. William Paley created the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) the following year. In 1939, antitrust regulators forced NBC to spin off the “Blue Network,” a second network they owned. The spun-off company renamed itself the American Broadcasting Company (ABC).

These three networks dominated radio and television broadcasting for about 50 years until cable television became popular.

Radio Goes Global

Radio manufacturers in the United Kingdom recognized the need for content to drive radio sales. There were radio stations but they were sporadic low-quality affairs. To encourage high-quality content they formed the British Broadcasting Company (BBC).

Around this time, radio broadcasts popped up in major cities in the world. Radio Paris launched in 1922. German radio went online in 1923 but was seized by Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels a decade later. Goebbels created modern electronic propaganda and his core methods are still in use today. Furthermore, Germany broadcast propaganda to neighboring countries who responded by broadcasting their own anti-fascist messages to Germans.

In the US, broadcast networks were primarily advertising supported. Radio manufacturers benefitted from the availability of content paid for by businesses advertising goods and services. In contrast, radio sales drove manufacturers to fund the BBC. Advertising was seen as a nuisance and eventually dropped. The first head of the BBC, Lord Reith, declared that radio broadcasting is a public service, not a commercial product. Most countries throughout the world started with the European public service model but, to some extent, transitioned to the US commercial model. Conversely, the US government-funded and launched a television network, the Public Broadcasting Service, in 1970.


Eventually, RCA moved into television (see the television entry) and NBC, CBS, and ABC became national US television networks. A smaller network, DuMont, tried unsuccessfully to compete. It was shuttered as a network in 1956 though the surviving stations recreated a new broadcast network, Fox Broadcasting Company, in 1986.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)

MRI allows physicians to see and diagnose soft tissue without surgery.


MRI is one of these cases where everybody argues somebody else invented it for patent priority. However, courts and historians find that physician Raymond Damadian was first to make an MRI that scans people (prior MRI’s would scan small pieces of organic material).

Damadian went on to form Fonar Corp. They failed to sell working MRI machines but made a lot of money via patent litigation. Eventually, Fonar won a $128.7 million patent infringement case against GE.

Nobel Fiasco

Despite a strong record, and agreement by most historians, the 2003 Nobel Prize for Medicine, for the MRI, went to Lauterbur and Mansfield.

Damadian argues, persuasively, their “innovation” is the application of his work. They renamed his machine but focused it primarily on the imaging, with a different name. Damadian named his machine Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy (NMR). Scientists believe the word “nuclear” would scare patients so renamed it Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). Radiologists thought the word “imaging” to be important, but the machine is the same.

Lauterbur couldn’t stand Damadian and announced he would reject a Nobel Prize if asked to share it with him. Despite a surly personality, Lauterbur did figure out how to aim the MRI to different places and also how to transform the cellular resonance (the “R”) into the images we associate with MRI’s today. Lauterbur also claims to have created the idea of a whole-body scanner but scientists widely believe that Damadian announced the idea first. Damadian’s full-body MRI scanner is a Smithsonian exhibit as the first MRI machine.

Mansfield acted much more collegial, congratulating Damadian on his first scan and giving him credit (Mansfield created the second scan).

Damadian Invented MRI

Damadian first started experimenting with MRI in 1971 but it wasn’t until Jul. 3, 1977, that he ran the first successful scan. The images were much cruder by then more abundant CT scanners. What people didn’t realize is how much more an MRI would eventually see.

The National Cancer Institute had withdrawn its support of Damadian, quoting an NCI spokesman, Larry Blaser: “We don’t look on nuclear magnetic resonance as a promising area of diagnosis.” (Evans)

Modern Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO’s)

People have been genetically modifying plants and animals for eternity. Virtually every plant we eat is the result of genetic modification via selective breeding. Tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, and countless others only exist due to genetic modifications. Furthermore, cows, pigs, chickens and arguably even all modern breeds of dogs are the result of genetic modification.

Modern genetic modification consists of using science to modify the genetic structure of a plant or animal rather than selective breeding. It involves selectively adding, removing, or modifying specific genetic traits.

Modern GMO crops resist weeds, pests, and drought or are immune from pesticides or herbicides. They increase farmer productivity, enabling larger and more efficient farms. GMO foods may last longer before spoiling or resist bruising. GMO’s are simpler and more convenient than traditional methods for weed and pest control. However, critics contend the modifications carry undiscovered risks.

Aranda Chakrabarty discovered modern GMO techniques while working for GE Research. He manipulated the genes of a bacteria so it broke down oil.

Patent protection was initially denied because living things couldn’t be patented. However, in a landmark 1980 case, Diamond v. Chakrabarty, the US Supreme Court decided that modern GMO’s are eligible for patent protection. This ruling created a gold rush.

Subsequently, Genentech developed better insulin in 1982 and companies have engineered pest and herbicide-resistant crops.

Light Emitting Diode (LED)

“New York City and you’re flying in an airplane and you see all these lights. And you think lights, lights, lights, lights, lights.”

Nick Holonyak

Nick Holonyak Jr.’s mom was an orphan. His dad was a coal miner. After a stint in the mine’s, Nick decided school sounded like a fine idea.

Holonyak was the first graduate student of two-time Nobel Prize winner John Bardeen, inventor of the semiconductor.

Holonyak worked at General Electric in the laser group. Lasers, to that time, were infrared and invisible to the naked eye. In 1962, Holonyak invented a Light Emitting Diode (LED) that emitted a red light, making the laser light visible. To this day, all red lasers are based on Holonyak’s work.

In 1963 Holonyak left GE for academia, joining the faculty at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. GE, along with other competitors, built a substantial LED business that still exists. Additionally, other companies went on to use the technology to improve devices from lasers to television and computer screens.

GE build from their own LED light business. However, with the innovation of LED light bulbs that last for decades, their core lighting business is destined for extinction as the need for replacement bulbs is expected to wane. As of 2019, GE has been working for years to sell the light-bulb business that dates back to Edison and launched the business. However, thanks to the longevity of LED lights, they so far failed to find a buyer.

Markedly, Holonyak has no received a Nobel Prize despite that the prize was awarded to the inventor of blue LED’s, a derivative of Holonyak’s work.

“They’re so damn cheap.”

Nick Holonyak

X-Ray Imaging

In 1895, Wilhelm Röntgen noticed that electromagnetic radiation would expose bone structure under certain conditions. He invented the medical X-Ray machine. For his invention, Röntgen received the first Nobel Prize for Physics, in 1901, and several other illustrious awards. Due to WWI, companies were forbidden from paying the German royalties and his savings were destroyed by post-war hyperinflation. Röntgen died bankrupt despite the enormous impact of his work. However, General Electric used the technology to build a thriving medical imaging business that still exists.

Even high-quality modern sources wrongly attribute the X-Ray tube to prolific GE inventor Elihu Thomson. However, Thomson’s own papers make few mentions of x-rays. His only dated lab journal entry, Feb. 26, 1896, references “X-rays of Röntgen.”

Thomson’s earliest patent involving x-rays has a priority date of Feb. 14, 1898, three years after Roentgen’s work. The entry is titled “Roentgen-ray tube.”

It seems likely that Thomson may have, at most, invented a better (or at least different) x-ray generation tube.

Thomson came to GE after Edison General Electric Company acquired the Thomson-Houston Electric company in 1892, renaming itself the General Electric Company. He refused to move his laboratory from Massachusetts to GE headquarters in NY and also refused a management position.

Thomson has countless other legitimate innovations, with over 700 patents.

Mass Market Electricity

Edison created the first public electric company, powered by DC, in 1882 in lower Manhattan. His system included generators, junction boxes, fuses, sockets, and parallel wiring. Since DC current could not be transmitted far Edison’s initial electrical plant was limited in scope. Eventually, there would be many small, expensive electricity plants scattered around major cities in the US.

General Electric

Insull worked for Edison, starting in 1881. He created electric plants throughout the US. An early Edison employee, Insull was one of the founders of General Electric.

He left GE in 1892 under circumstances that are unclear. Historians speculate GE passed him over for promotion or he disagreed on how to finance the company. In any event, GE culture has a long history of pushing out talent.

In any event, Insull eventually moved to Chicago and ramped up his own electric company, envisioning something entirely different, a mass market for electricity. Before Insull, there were about 5,000 Chicago customers electrified because electricity was extremely expensive.

Before Insull, there were many noisy, expensive, small, polluting power plants. After him, there were far fewer, much larger, far-away power plants. He created the modern centralized electric factory transforming electricity into a mass-market product. Insull was also the first to use turbines to drive ever-larger electrical generators.

The Electric Factory & Modern Grid

Insull built massive scale, extended the grid everywhere, vastly lowered the price, and increased the reach of electric to four million people. He wanted to electrify everybody near and far, to turn electric into a must-have commodity like water. Because generated electricity that was not used was wasted Insull also had to convince his new electrified customers to use electricity.

Insull, with a personal net worth of $150 million in 1929, went bankrupt during the Great Depression. He’d raised an enormous amount of investment and lost not only his own funds but also those of his investors. Worried, he fled to Paris, was kidnapped in Turkey, then returned to the US where he was criminally charged with selling worthless stock. However, a jury acquitted him after five minutes of jury deliberation. He died, in 1938, with a net worth of -$16 million.

Electricity Factory & Distribution Network

After inventing the long-lasting light bulb, Edison needed an electrical grid to deploy his innovation. Remember that, at this time, all electrically powered devices ran off batteries.


The Edison Electric Illuminating Company, founded after the light bulb company, funded both an electrical generation station, grid, and all supporting equipment.

Edison innovated better dynamos, circuits, switches, meters, fuses, and lots of cabling. The electrical factory and grid are vastly more complex than the light bulb. It required a herculean effort innovating technology and business methods.

The directors (Vanderbilt and J.P. Morgan) of the Edison Electric Light Company a different predecessor, funded the station with $80,000. Additionally, Edison also contributed significantly from his own wealth.

Recognizing that a one-off electricity factory wouldn’t work, Edison eventually built factories to manufacture dynamos, bulbs, and the rest of the equipment.

He personally helped dig up the streets of Manhattan to run underground electrical wires, which could only be done between 8 PM and 4 AM. Finally, Monday, Sept. 4, 1882, the first electrical plant came online, Pearl Street Station. Among the first customers to have electric lighting were the offices of the New York Times.

The whole project was a relatively quick success. Factories were especially eager to switch from gas to electric since electric lamps were less likely to start fires. Edison created successor small companies that eventually coalesced to become General Electric.

Edison Burns Out

Though the primary innovator of this is marked as Edison it is arguably Tesla, who briefly worked for Edison, that devised much of what enables a modern electrical grid.

As the business evolved, Edison’s companies acquired and merged with countless other companies. However, Edison never liked the merger that became General Electric. He asked that his name be dropped from the company.

He sold his 10% share in GE and used the money to finance an iron-mining project that never panned out.

Thomas Edison did not make a substantial amount of money from General Electric. When he died his estate was worth $12 million. The industry he created, at that time, was worth about $15 billion.