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GE and the Electric Carving Knife

As a 30Rock Junkie, I have to say I have loyalties to General Electric. After all, after years of market research, Donaghy developed the Trivection oven, his “greatest triumph,” soaring him in 2006 to replace the late Gary and take the title of “Vice President of East Coast Television and Microwave Oven Programming.”

It’s not just Donaghy that has me squeezing over the letters G E. They’re a brand from my childhood that continues to find its way into my home. Long before my entrance into the world, GE was making it a better place for me and households everywhere. I didn’t realize how smart those folks are until today when I discovered How to Carve a Turkey Like a Pro!

Mark Little, head of GE Global Research, says that at GE, “the research business is not the business of Eureka moments. It’s the business of planning strategic approaches to things, hard work, and patience.” This has been true for more than a century, whether the innovation involved a lightweight composite blade for the latest jet engine or the blade of a carving knife for slicing Thanksgiving turkey.

The story of the mighty electric carving knife is an excellent example of how GE marries the scientific method with applied research, business acumen, and manufacturing prowess. William H. Sahloff, who in the 1950s ran GE’s housewares division, believed that the American kitchen was missing the perfect slicing utensil. Sahloff’s intuition about what homes lacked had paid off before: he was the man who conceived the electric can opener and the electric toothbrush.

At that point, the engineers were called in. According to a 1968 written history of the knife preserved by the Schenectady Museum, the research and development concept “was one which General Electric applies to all of its products: fill the need by producing a product which will serve the consumer efficiently.”

GE engineers in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and Brockport, New York, spent five years perfecting the knife. They discovered that a single sharp blade was performing poorly and figured out a way to use two serrated reciprocating blades powered by a 120-volt electrical motor. The blades had edges hardened with tungsten carbide and moved back and forth 2,000 per minute. They did the slicing, not the user.

The engineers were informed in their research by “home economists in the housewares division’s test kitchen [who] conducted home application tests. The home economists considered the product’s usefulness to the consumer during its development stage and tested pilot models,” the knife history declares.

Despite all the R&D effort, “the new idea met resistance from some General Electric executives, who doubted that the product would sell well,” according to the history. There were also naysayers among wholesalers and retailers in 1963 when the knife debuted at the National Housewares Exhibit at a suggested retail price of $27.95.

But the roar of millions of electric knives soon drowned the critics out. Over 5 million knives with a retail value of $100 million were sold in 1965 and 1966. On the innovation side, GE engineers filed for six patents when the knife debuted and dozens later.

In many American households, the sliced turkey never looked the same again.

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