The Transformation Of GE Into A Corporate Titan, Revealed In Ingenious Infographic

This interactive chart plots 6,000 pages of annual reports, and in so doing tracks the transformation of GE from a sleepy company into a global conglomerate.

If you aren’t an investor, you’ve probably never turned the page of a company’s dry annual reports. Part PR spin, part earnest economic analysis, none of it is all that accessible to the average person.


But GE found an innovative way to share their annual reports beyond expecting us to read them. They scanned nearly 120 years of their reports–from 1892 to 2011–and analyzed 6,000 pages of content. Then they (loosely) charted the frequency with which they used keywords across major topics like moving, powering, curing, and building.

The resulting interactive visualization is actually pretty fascinating, as far as histories of corporations go. Each mention of any given topic becomes a lit window of sorts. So you can quickly scan corporate trends over time, and then you can click on any given window to see the cited article.

In practice, when exploring the word “wind,” you see that most mentions have occurred since 2000, around the time of their massive investment into wind turbine technology (they’re the largest producer of wind turbines in the U.S., and the sixth largest in the world). But you may be surprised to learn that GE actually made a few mentions of wind back in the 1940s. Clicking for more info, you learn that they were actually working on the largest motor in the world at the time, an 89,000-horsepower beast to drive a wind tunnel.

And this suggests the most powerful facet of the infographic: In seeing certain words proliferate through the annual reports, you’re really seeing the transformation of GE’s business overtime. For example, note that before Jack Welch transformed the company into a financial and industrial profit engine in the 1980s, the word “global” hardly appeared in GE’s annual reports at all. But afterwards, the word spreads like fire:

Likewise with a word like “aviation.” What you’re really seeing here is the way a small piece of GE’s overall business grew and grew, as the company piled on resources and strategy, with the aim of dominating a once-stable market:

The entire project is a smart move on GE’s part. They can paint a historical timeline of innovation, framed in scientific metrics to create an aura of scientific objectiveness (sidestepping the fact that clearly the content has been carefully curated). But at the same, as a consumer, or even a business analyst, I’ve received so much more quickly usable data than were I handed a pile of annual reports. Because before today, the only words I’ve ever paid much attention to from GE were said by Jack Donaghy.


[Hat tip: FlowingData]

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started, a simple way to give back every day.