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Willis R. Whitney, General Electric and the Origins of U.S. Industrial Research by George Wise (120,000 words, 30 illustrations)

Born in Jamestown, New York, Willis R. Whitney (1868-1958) was the longtime director of General Electric’s Research Laboratory and is widely considered one of the fathers of industrial research. He graduated from MIT in 1890 to become assistant professor of chemistry there. In 1896, he received his Ph.D. from the University of Leipzig under Wilhelm Ostwald. Having grown dissatisfied with purely academic work, he jumped at the opportunity, provided by Elihu Thompson in 1900, to become director of the newly created GE Research Laboratory.

The laboratory was “to be devoted exclusively to original research.” “It is hoped,” a 1902 report stated, “that many profitable fields may be discovered” and so it was: when Whitney took over, GE needed more economical lamp filaments and the laboratory developed a new form of “metallized” carbon which gave 25% more light for the same wattage, the first radical improvement in Edison’s incandescent carbon filament. Millions of the new lamps were sold in a single year. The laboratory’s many other contributions include the tungsten lamp, several applications for wrought tungsten (replacing platinum targets in X-ray tubes and platinum contacts in spark coils, magnetos and relays) and the Coolidge X-ray tube in a wide range of sizes.

Whitney’s broad scientific knowledge, ability as a chemist and resourcefulness as an experimenter lay the basis for all the work of the laboratory. He stepped down as director in 1932. He was a member of numerous institutions including the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, American Society of Electrochemical Engineers, National Academy of Sciences, British Institute of Metals, and National Research Council, and he received many honors, such as the Willard Gibbs Medal in 1920, the Perkin Medal in 1921, the Gold Medal of the National Institute of Social Sciences in 1928, and the AIEE Edison Medal in 1934 for “his contributions to electrical science, his pioneer inventions, and his inspiring leadership in research.”

“Whitney invented modern industrial research... George Wise re-creates much of the anxiety and excitement of the decades when business discovered science and vice versa.” — David Diamond, The New York Times

“Wise has not simply written biography and a story of the research laboratory at General Electric but also a great deal of General Electric history and history of technology as well... The author’s technical and scientific presentations are generally lucid and accessible to the layperson.” — Martha M. Trescott, Journal of Economic History

“[A] book of many strengths. Most immediately apparent is the very high quality of the writing. As a skilled biographer, Wise succeeds in bringing the reader into the life of an interesting and important individual... Wise does not neglect the personal side of Whitney’s life, including his unhappy family situation and his personal illnesses... The primary focus, however, is on his work at GE, work the author expertly fits into broader patterns of science, industry and society in early twentieth-century America.” — James H. Madison, Journal of American History

“[A] thoroughly researched and lucidly written book... Wise’s book makes important contributions to the understanding of the origins of industrial research and the development of science in the American context.” — John K. Smith, Technology and Culture

“George Wise effectively develops the foundation for an interesting and in-depth view of a man who made an outstanding contribution to industrial research, while at the same time suffering personal disappointments and fighting a continuing battle with recurring mental depression... Wise’s book is warm, personal, and rich in historical background; it provides a view into the life of the individual who set the stage for industrial research in America.” — Alfred A. Bolton, Academy of Management Review

“[An] important book... Wise’s portrayal of Whitney is acute and sensitive. Moreover, it demonstrates that the depiction of industrial scientists as either alienated and unhappy academics-in-exile or mindless minions of the giant corporation is overly simple... Wise has produced a first-rate study of a pioneering establishment that should be read by anyone interested in the crucial relationships between science and modern industry.” — Larry Owens, Business History Review

“[A] turning point in the long-neglected history of industrial research. [N]ot merely outstanding... [a] definitive work that establish[es] critical standards for future research in this field... beautifully crafted... a sensitive and insightful biography of Willis R. Whitney.” — Edwin T. Lawton, Jr., Isis

“Wise has accomplished perhaps the most difficult task before any biographer — successfully connecting his subject’s historical significance with the deeper elements of his humanity. This humanity is described with a biographer’s sympathy and a historian’s sophistication... Wise writes with sympathy and often charm, drawing not only from substantial archival records but also from dozens of interviews carried out with Whitney’s associates and workers... This biography will not only be the standard study of Whitney, but it will also provide a useful model and guide for all students of the key institutions of modern science.” — Robert Friedel, British Journal for the History of Science