There are very few families in America who have made a bigger impact on the citizens of this country than the Hughes family of Bismarck.
Alexander Hughes, the patriarch of the family, was born in 1846 and he organized the Hughes Electric Co. (HEC) in 1889, which brought electricity to Bismarck. In 1897, he headed up a family-based company called the Fargo Electric Co., which expanded the electricity availability in Fargo.
His oldest son, George, invented the electric stove, and later brought the Edison Electric Appliance Co., which he co-founded, under the umbrella of General Electric (GE). George then served as president of the GE division that manufactured and marketed Hotpoint products for nearly 25 years.
Edmund, Alexander’s other son, took over the family electricity businesses in Bismarck and Fargo in 1900 and expanded it so that it covered an area stretching from eastern Montana to western Minnesota. In 1908, he began building telephone exchanges, covering much of the same area. He also had banking interests, coal mines, a water company and an insurance company.
Alexander’s daughter, Helen, became “one of the nation’s first female industrial designers.” Her modern designs became very popular, and she was able to charge “opulent fees” as a design consultant. She was contracted by GE to redesign electric ranges that were manufactured by her brother, George.
George had the family distinction of working together with his father and both of his siblings on significant individual projects. George served as general manager of the FEC, an electric company founded and run by his father, and when Edmund began to expand the HEC, George lent his assistance. GE contracted with Helen to redesign their line of electric ranges, and she worked with George on that project.
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Before George started working with his family in the electric business, he was a journalist, working first as a reporter and then as city editor of the Bismarck Tribune. He then went to work for the St. Paul Dispatch newspaper. In 1900, in order to help his brother Edmund expand the HEC, George moved to Dickinson, N.D., to assist in setting up the power plant there. He was sent to Fargo by the Dispatch to cover news and events in eastern North Dakota, and while in Fargo, he became general manager of the Fargo Edison Co., an enterprise founded by his father.
In 1905, George invented the first electric stove. Two years later, he moved to Minneapolis and after a year, relocated to Chicago. In 1910, George founded the Hughes Electric Heating Co. to produce his stove. After a successful exhibition of his new appliance later that year at the Electric Light Association Convention in St. Louis, he not only sold a number of stoves, but also found several capitalists who were willing to invest in his company.
One person who was very interested in George’s invention was Earl H. Richardson, from Ontario, Calif. Richardson had created a number of different electrical appliances, of which the most popular was the electric laundry iron. The heat of the iron was concentrated at the point, which made it easier to iron around buttons, and consequently, Richardson named his company the Hotpoint Electric Heating Co. Other electrical appliances Richardson had created were the coffeepot, tea kettle, chafing dish, toaster, hotplate and jug cooker or crock-pot.
In 1918, the Hughes Electric Heating Co. merged with the Hotpoint Electric Heating Co. to form the Edison Electric Appliance Co. (EEAC), and it became the “heating device section of GE.” All of their products were branded with the Hotpoint name, and they soon added griddles, radiant heaters, vacuum cleaners, water heaters, sewing machines and foot warmers to their growing list of products.
The last major kitchen appliance introduced by George was the refrigerator, which was added in 1934. “By 1932, the company was producing about 135 (different) appliances.”
At the outset, in 1918, George was named president of the EEAC, which was renamed the Edison General Electric Co. in 1931. Richardson remained with the company until his death in 1934.
George unveiled the first Hotpoint electric range, Model 1, in 1919. At that time, all of his ranges were manufactured in either black or brown with white enamel oven door panels. Then, in 1922, he received an order from a Raleigh, N.C., utility executive “for an all-white, porcelain/enamel stove.” Rather than admit they did not make an all-white, enamel stove, Hughes quoted “an exorbitantly high price to discourage him.” When the check came through, he was forced to develop a range that fit that description. Starting in 1923, “Hotpoint models included all-white ranges with nickel trim on the door,” and it soon became the most popular model.
I recently had the opportunity to read an advance copy of Bruce Gjovig’s new book, "Innovative Entrepreneurs from North Dakota," with a scheduled release date of early December. In the book, I learned that George’s sister, Helen (Hughes) Dulany, a leading female industrial designer, was contracted by GE “to redesign a line of electric ranges,” and that the decision to put her under contract may have been made without the prior knowledge of her older brother.
During her brief career, many of her designs were featured in magazines such as House Beautiful, Better Homes and Gardens, and Arts and Decoration. GE was very pleased with the design work she did for them, and when she retired in the mid-1930s, they decided to hire a full-time designer for the Hotpoint division.
Under the direction and leadership of George Hughes, the Hotpoint electric appliance division of GE grew to become one of biggest distributorships of home appliances in the U.S., and George retired as president in 1940 to become chairman of the board. The same year, he received the Modern Pioneers Award for the invention of the electric range, and also the James H. McGraw Medal for having “done the most to advance the interests of the electrical industry.”
George Alexander Hughes died Sept. 9, 1944. In 2019, he was inducted into the Bismarck High School Hall of Fame.
“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at firstname.lastname@example.org.