Contacts with Sweden

In letters preserved from the beginning of the century to the time after the Second World War, Ernst Alexanderson’s lively contacts with his homeland can be followed. I have earlier touched upon his bonds with the Swedish electric power pioneer Ernst Danielson. As Managing Director of ASEA, his old friend Sigfrid Edström wrote several letters of introduction for Swedish engineers wanting to study the general development of electricity in the USA. It was natural that Ernst Alexanderson became the intermediary at GE and later at RCA. Notably, he invited the guests to his home at Adams Road, but often the invitation extended to the summer cottage at Lake George, where the guests were often invited on a trip in his yacht.

In this way, and also through lively correspondence, Alexanderson kept in contact over the years with developments in Sweden. As early as 1911 he gave his views on the electrification of the ore-field railway (Malmbanan), when Einar Zachrisson, an employee at the Swedish State Railway’s Department for Electrical Service, visited him. Zachrisson was also allowed to take part in “high frequency experiments” as he expressed it in a letter of thanks to Alexanderson. In the same year, the manager of the department for electrical service Ivan Öfverholm and Sigfrid Edström asked Alexanderson to accept a visit from the Chief Engineer of Grängesberg’s mines, railways and ships, K.Bildt, who was going to the USA in order to study several areas of electrical engineering.

A steady stream of visitors appeared during Alexanderson’s period of work at General Electric. Additional examples show how Swedish scientists and engineers attached importance to Alexanderson’s successful work. Thus, the well-known scientist and Nobel prize laureate Professor Manne Siegbahn, then serving at the University of Lund, sent a letter in May, 1919. He had received some American newspapers from Alexanderson’s father, the former Professor of Classical Languages at the University, describing Alexanderson’s latest inventions. He wanted more detailed descriptions, because, as he said, the popular surveys, “do not satisfy a physicist.” Finally he congratulated Alexanderson on his successes, both as a local compatriot and for their common cause, and asks him to pass on greetings to his scientific colleagues Hull, Langmuir and Coolidge at General Electric.

The contacts regarding the Swedish electrification of the railways and other interesting electro-technical questions were broken during the First World War, but later resumed. The Master of Engineering Gösta Lindman was employed by General Electric during the years 1900-1902 and thereafter by different electric companies in the USA and Sweden, where he interested himself in the electrification of street cars and railways. In his capacity as local manager in New York for The Royal Swedish Commission he wrote in February 1919 to the Managing Director E. W. Rice.

In his letter, he asked not only for a quotation for a complete equipping of 50 Swedish street cars but also to discuss equipment for Swedish railways which were in planning for increased electrification. The reason for contacting General Electric is the difficulty at this time of getting appropriate equipment in Europe. At the same time, he expresses a wish to see what Alexanderson had accomplished at the alternator station in New Brunswick. In correspondence with Alexanderson, he asked what clearances were necessary. After permission from the Navy, responsible during the war for the station, the Marconi Company who owned the station and General Electric who delivered the Alexanderson alternators Lindman finally was allowed to visit the station.

Among other interesting letter writers searching for advice regarding railway electrification in Sweden, was Axel Julius Körner. He obtained his Master of Engineering degree at the Royal Technical University some years after Alexanderson, and was employed after graduation by ASEA. In 1906 he went to the USA and was employed for a short time at GE. Returning to Sweden he was again employed by ASEA. where ultimately he became manager of the electrification department of the Nordic Border Railway. In following years he was increasingly dedicated to the electrification of the Swedish railways as a member and secretary of the Committee for Railway Electrification in 1920, and then as secretary of the Committee for Low Power Interference. Additionally. from 1918 he was editor of the technical magazine Elektroteknik. In a letter dated December 15, 1921, he wrote about the Cigre convention in Paris, regretting that he could not meet with Alexanderson on his visit to Sweden earlier that year; this letter continues with actual worries as well as reasons for rejoicing about his work in the previously-mentioned committees.

At this time it was unclear which type of power should be choser for railway expansion. The Director of the Board of the Swedish State Railway’s electro-technical department, Ivan August Öfverholm, was in favor of single phase alternating current, while several others were voting for direct current. Körner made a comparison between DC locomotives, which GE advocated, and the Swedish State Railway wished for and single phase locomotives. He sent a copy of the investigation tc Alexanderson asking for a comment, but he was concerned about Alexanderson’s request for confidentiality about the contents of the investigation. He further asks Alexanderson if it is possible to send him material regarding third rail construction and the price for a complementary investigation for a 1,500 V DC system. It could shorten the time 01 the investigation. Concerning ASEA it was his impression that only om person, Professor Karl Arvid Lindström, had an independent viewpoint about the electrification of railways. Unfortunately, Lindström was entirely absorbed in finding a solution to various interference questions it connection with the electrification.

The contacts with Sweden were of course close because of the design, selling and opening of the long wave transmitter station in Grime-ton in the year 1925. King Gustaf V was present for its dedication.

During the 1930’s many Swedish electrical engineers made study tours to the USA and naturally they needed help. The Director of the Elektriska AB AEG, Carl Reuterswärd, wrote to his friend Alexandersor asking him to assist his young employee Torsten Elmquist in studying the latest developments in the field of radio in America.

After the outbreak of war in 1939, the postal connection with Sweden was almost completely disrupted. The telegraph connection was via short wave, and on occasions when the short wave failed, long wave between the alternator station of Grimeton in Sweden and the USA was the only possibility for communication over the Atlantic.

During the war Alexanderson, however, gained an opportunity to address his fellow countrymen in Sweden with a Grimeton radio interview on a phonograph record.

Alexanderson speaks in Swedish about his work, full of nuances, in the field of electrical engineering and the great possibilities General Electric has given him, to work freely as an inventor. He furthermore tells of his pioneering work in radio, creating the base for modern radio technology, and how inventions and patents led to complete systems. Those inventions that became the object of patent applications, naturally required the most work. As an example, he mentions his patent regarding selective frequency tuning, winning four of five cases at the courts of law. Some other patents only showed provisional results, while yet others gave ideas of new inventions which might take 20 years to realize in practice.

He describes his first years in the USA, his cooperation with Steinmetz, the development of the alternator and, as an answer to the interviewer’s question if he is “happy to have come to the USA,” he unreservedly replies yes. America had those possibilities that he could not hope to find elsewhere.

On the question about his view of the future of the radio industry, he replies, “during the last 40 years we have witnessed how research has been adjusted to industry’s needs. The result has become the so-called electronic industry, not only covering the online radio news industry but also new procedures in factories, new methods of controlling electric motors and new power distribution systems.” Alexanderson describes how far television has developed and the existing difficulties, for example in the field of transmission.

When the interviewer asks what he can predict about the importance of electronic sciences for the world after the war, the reply was: “partly we can predict future inventions, because they are built on the science of today, but it is the unexpected combinations that will be most important. It seemed fantastic to say the least, when we predicted that the radio tube should lead to a new system for electric power transmission. But now it is long since a fact.”

At the end of the interview Alexanderson describes the amplidyne, developed during the war. The interviewer offers him a chance to bring greetings to Sweden, and he sends his compliments to all good friends, particularly mentioning those at the Board of Telephones and Telegraphs, the Academy of Sciences, the Royal Technical University, the Academy of Engineering Sciences and the Universities in Uppsala and Lund. To the members of the Alexanderson family, von Heidenstam, Abelin, Lagercrantz and Zethelius he sends a special greeting and expresses a hope soon, once more, to go on visits to Sweden.

During the war years, the Department of Justice in USA organized a series of interview broadcasts over 80 radio stations from coast to coast in the USA. It was called “I’m an American” and famous American citizens who immigrated to the USA answered a number of questions about why they emigrated, their expectations of the new country, how their expectations had been met, how important they ranked living in a democratic society, and so on. Among those participating were such well-knowr people as Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann, Irving Berlin, Igor Sikorsky Claudette Colbert, Leopold Stokowski, Paul Muni and Mischa Elmar to name a few.

According to the initiators, the intentions of the program were nu merous. On the one hand they wanted to increase the Americans’ respec and esteem for their new fellow-countrymen of different origins, and or the other hand to neutralize the intolerance giving such great worry it other parts of the world, and reminding all Americans about the ideal; of freedom, justice and the possibility of success, which the nation wx ready to defend.

The interview with Ernst Alexanderson took place on February 15 1942. He described how he was employed at General Electric, and hov Fessenden’s dream of a reliable radio system could be realized by mean. of the development of the alternator during the First World War.

The interviewer asks if Alexanderson considered that Swedish im migrants, as American citizens, had had their entire circumstances im proved by, for example, better housing, better food, higher salaries an better educational possibilities for the children.

He answered the questions a little resentfully: “certainly there ar, improvements to talk about, but not in the way the question has bee( put. Every one visiting Sweden could praise the food. He will certain ly remember the Swedish smorgasbord. The schools are excellent, th houses comfortable and the salaries so fair that no real poverty exists The many emigrants coming at the turn of the century had dreams abou success, however. For them America was the Promised Land and oftei their dreams were met.”

He then went on to the positive aspects of the American workin life, how well received he was as a newcomer and he gives an exampl from his earliest days. The second day after his arrival in USA he went t East Orange, N. J. to see, if possible, the well-known inventor Thoma A. Edison. The doorman told him that the old man would arrive a about six, and then he could meet him. Much to Alexanderson’s surpris he arrived punctually and devoted time talking with him. He was als, offered a job and was referred to an assistant of Edison. But it was no the kind of job Alexanderson desired, and therefore he later took cow age and called on Steinmetz and became employed at General Electric The trustful cooperation with Steinmetz has been mentioned earlier an in the interview Alexanderson gives an additional example of how eas going the cooperation between him and his superior was, “that after a fey years I could already go directly to the Vice President and Chief Enginee E.W. Rice and ask him to be present at my experiments.”

It was on such an occasion that the secretary of the company cam to discuss an administrative matter with Rice. He said he didn’t hav time at the moment, as he had promised to attend an experiment.

When the secretary asked why he is wasting time on such fool ish dreams, when so much other more important business existed, th secretary got the reply, “I do not agree with you. If, as this young ma believes, he can find a way of telephoning over the Atlantic, I consider it as my duty to take a closer look.”

Alexanderson is of the opinion that these episodes he describes give a good picture of how some of his main expectations of America were met. He makes a comparison between the work atmosphere between colleagues in Europe and in the USA, and considers that in America you wish each other success, something more exceptional in Europe.

Alexanderson expresses his personal satisfaction with life in America, which has given him occasion to carry on his profession in a way it could not have been done in Sweden. He is happy that his children have good possibilities for personal development in America and he is also pleased to contribute to the USA’s war effort, which he hopes will protect and preserve the ideals of American people.

He completes the interview by giving his understanding of democracy, “the word democracy has many meanings. The people in Scandinavia have democratic governments and are entirely protected by their laws. The emigrants, however, are drawn to America in order to satisfy their striving as individuals. They are tired of class privileges. They are equally suspicious of mass privileges. I think their conception of American democracy is good luck to everybody and may the best win.”

I have earlier touched on the difficulties with forwarding of post between the USA and Sweden during WWII. An illustration is the letter which the Chief Manager of Telegrafverket’s radio department, Seth Ljungqvist, sent to his friend Ernst Alexanderson in 1941.

In a reply preserved from 1942, Alexanderson is grateful for the only letter so far to arrive from Sweden. It took a year to forward the letter from Sweden to the USA. In this letter, Alexanderson mentions that he had an unexpected occasion to give an interview in Swedish. It was the previously mentioned phonograph record sent to Sweden and transmitted by the Swedish Broadcasting Company. Alexanderson writes about his family in the letter. The male family members were in war service or waiting for draft papers, and two of his daughter’s husbands were employed as engineers at General Electric. He hopes that after the war he once again may visit Sweden, the only country in the world, he assumes, where the best of the old times with the venerable traditions can still be found, and still live on.

After the end of the war all connections across the Atlantic were reopened. In the year 1945 he is happy to again receive another letter from Seth Ljungqvist, written the day after the peace and postmarked “First Swedish Transatlantic Flight.” It was SILA (Swedish Intercontinental Air Traffic AB) on the first flight from Stockholm to New York, June 27th 1945, taking passengers and mail on a rebuilt “Flying Fortress” Boeing B-17.

In 1947 Alexanderson and Seth Ljungqvist had direct contact over the telephone. It took place over the newly established radio telephone connection between Sweden and America. It was the first call exchanged over the line, and Ljungqvist reminisced about the opening of Grimeton 22 years earlier at which both had been present. Ljungqvist had two years earlier been granted a pension as Chief Engineer for the Department of Radio, and Alexanderson had at that time one year left to retirement. The conversation was broadcast in Swedish.

Alexanderson again receives callers at General Electric, individual Swedish engineers and whole delegations curious about what the USA can now offer in the field of technology. Among all these visitors from Sweden was Uno Lamm, mentioned earlier, delegations from Telegrafverket, the electrical industry and Swedish Radio.

Alexanderson became for the visiting Swedes something of an oracle. He could comment on any question, in various fields of electro-technology and electronics, and expressed his opinion with firm authority, as he had lived with and actively worked in these fields for the entire first half of the century.

It was natural that in December 1946 he was also interviewed by the Technical Manager at the Swedish Broadcasting Company (Sveriges Radio), Johan von Utfall, about the future of television.

To the question about the development of television in America, Alexanderson replies, “the work with television was delayed during the war. It is still under development and some practical problems have to be solved. The reason is that some television programs cannot be made locally, but have to be distributed from central points. This was already anticipated before the war. For example we had at General Electric relay stations between New York and Schenectady placed high up on mountains. The television signals of course cannot be transferred over common telephone lines, special and expensive cables are required or chains of short wave radio linking stations. The question of television is not so much a technical problem, but of how the practical distribution of programs will be solved.”

Johan von Utfall asks Alexanderson about his opinion concerning television in Sweden and got the reply, “I think it is right to carry out experiments with television in, for example Stockholm, where the audience should have the possibility to make their own judgement. But I don’t think you can have a network of television transmitters in Sweden before we have got practical experience in America. I mean, television alone cannot bear the high costs. In order to make the transmission chain economically sound, they must be used for other purposes, hundred of concurrent telephone calls, telegraph connections, picture transfe] several radio programs, remote control of office machines etc.”

Alexanderson completes the interview by telling of his actual work “During the war I have worked with radar and I believe that radar wil be important in the future for air navigation. But developments in elec tronics are not limited to radio. At General Electric we have alread worked for 20 years with direct current power transmission using elec tronics, and now we are working to perform this in practice, on a scale and over long distances.”

Several factors contributed to Ernst Alexanderson’s great success as inventor, designer and consulting engineer at the highest levels of the General Electric Company and the Radio Corporation of America.

The education he received at The Royal Technical University in Stockholm was of the highest international level. His solid education in mechanics stood him well, when it came to solving problems having to do with electro-mechanics. The complementary education provided by one of the leaders in this field, Professor Adolf Slaby at the Technical University in Berlin, gave him a deep knowledge of radio technique. Here, he came to learn of Steinmetz and his book. Later, the Royal Technical University in Stockholm for the first time awarded the Cedergren Medal for outstanding electro-technical authorship, and it was given to Steinmetz for a publication from 1914.
When, after finishing studies and a short spell at ASEA, Alexanderson decided to go to the USA, it was to a large extent to make the acquaintance of Charles Proteus Steinmetz. In his luggage, he brought a good knowledge of English, German and French which facilitated both his acclimatization in the new country and later his international activities.

When, as an “electric power” engineer Alexanderson succeeded in producing radio waves of stable frequency with his generator for high frequency current, the alternator, he had finally found his feet at General Electric. He would work directly for Steinmetz, first as a designer of generators and motors and later, in 1910, as member of the technical consultant department organized by Steinmetz.

In the first decade of the new century, General Electric was characterized by the recruitment of capable engineers to its different departments. Ernst Danielson had already recommended to Edwin W. Rice that he bring Steinmetz to General Electric. Later, on the recommendation of Steinmetz, Rice founded General Electric’s Research Laboratory.

With Rice as Technical Director and, from 1896, Vice President with responsibilities for production and technology, General Electric’s policy toward research was largely established. It meant considerable freedom for the scientists to undertake research in fields of interest to themselves, but also meant that inventors and consultants were given much latitude in their work. Informal contacts were fostered between researchers and engineers, when it came to solving different technical problems. As the time went on Alexanderson could count on considerable support and the necessary financing from Rice for his successful experiments. When the Radio Engineering Department was established in 1918 Alexanderson became the manager for that department. In 1919 RCA was formed and Alexanderson was appointed as Chief Engineer of the new company. He would share his time between RCA in New York City and GE in Schenectady, before returning entirely to General Electric in 1924. His department at GE received consultant assignments far beyond the limits of the radio field and therefore in 1928 was renamed the Consulting Engineering Department, and finally, in 1933 the Consulting Engineering Laboratory, popularly called “Alex’s Lab.”

The basic conditions of employment at General Electric were good. To this was added the unique residential environment, the “GE Plot.”

At the turn of the century General Electric purchased a building site in Schenectady from Union College, which urgently needed money. The area known as “The Realty Plot”* was planned as a residential district, primarily for General Electric’s officials. In the book “An Enclave of Elegance” written by Dr. Bruce Maston and published in 1983 by General Electric and the Schenectady Museum there is mainly a description of the architecture of the different homes which were built, but Maston also gives a description of the lives of some prominent inhabitants of the area.

One of them was Ernst Alexanderson who lived with his family in the house on 1132 Adams Road from 1911 until his death in 1975. In this area also lived Irving Langmuir, the first scientist employed at an industrial laboratory to be granted the Nobel Prize. At 102 Lenox Road, Edwin Rice owned a home, and at 1179 Lowell Road you could find the Swedish-born inventor Oscar Junggren. Steinmetz moved in at Wendell Avenue in 1901 and lived there until his death in 1923.

The plan of the plot shows how it forms an enclave in close connection to Union College, which was located on the opposite side of Lenox Road. Within the area, people socialized frequently and the homes often became the meeting place for gatherings where experiments were demonstrated or various ongoing projects were discussed, both with colleagues and guests from the USA or foreign countries. At Union College close by, both Steinmetz and Alexanderson gave lectures in the Department of Electrical Engineering which was headed by former GE colleague Ernst Berg. All three were residents of “The Realty Plot.”

In the Alexandersons’ living room the first television transmissions from the laboratory were shown, and later Alexanderson invited experts from the TV field to his cellar in order to show them his new system of color television. In the same way Steinmetz relocated a large part of his work to his home. General Electric also directly supported promising inventors who had difficulties meeting the requirements of regular attendance, which were normally required when working at GE’s own plants.
For example, a laboratory with special equipment was built at Chester W. Rice’s home, 1161 Lowell Road, so he could carry out his experiments in peace and quiet and at times suitable to himself. Maybe it helped that he was the son of Edwin W. Rice, but the result of his work in his own right with detectors for submarines, altimeters and other sensitive instruments, showed that the investment was justified.

In connection with a study or business trips to General Electric, many Swedes were invited to Alexanderson’s home at Adams Road. They were also often invited to his summer house at Lake George and on board Alexanderson’s boat “Nordic” for a sailing trip on the water.
This freedom to relocate part of the experimental and consultant activity to his home in the Realty Plot was a major benefit, and this informal way of working was both stimulating and gave good results.

* In a new subdivision of neighbourhoods in Schenectady, year 1978, this was renamed “The General Electric Realty Plot Historic District.”

In his spare time and in the company of different friends in the neighbourhood and at the summer cottages, Alexanderson’s life often became a mixture of playful practical jokes and serious discussions about different problems at work. An episode Alexanderson gladly retold was how he had once been invited to Steinmetz’s place in the country at the Mohawk River in order to discuss some technical problems. After a while, Steinmetz suggested to his friend to take a break and borrow his canoe at the beach of a small tributary of the Mohawk River. Alexanderson was advised to take off his socks and shoes, before going out on a trip on the fast-flowing waters. All went well until he reached rapids and suddenly realized that it would be impossible to return against the stream. He therefore passed over the rapids and into the main course of the Mohawk River. All he could do was to drag the canoe against the flow, back up the main river.

It became an excursion he never forgot. The river was swift and the ground very stony, and he had left his shoes at the cottage. The tour became both tiring and painful. On his return, he found Steinmetz roaring with laughter on meeting him at the porch. He evidently had planned this “practical joke.” “He had his own way of joking,” Alexanderson laughingly ended the story.

The life on the General Electric Realty Plot could also offer major drama. Mr. and Mrs. Alexanderson met with misfortune in 1923, when their six-year-old son Verner vanished without a trace. Many friends participated in the search. Over the radio station WGY in Schenectady Alexanderson appealed to the radio listeners to give possible information about the disappearance of his son.

A radio listener in Theresa, a small town in the northern part of N.Y. State, heard the SOS message and thought that the description of the boy corresponded with a child he had seen taken by a man and a woman to a summer cottage he supervised. He called the police who returned Verner home, unhurt. “Radio Repays Its Genius” was the main heading in a newspaper reproducing this dramatic event. It was the first known time radio was used for the advertisement of a lost person, a feature later becoming permanent in most radio programs.