5 Things You Didn't Know about GM

General Motors, iconic U.S. automaker and biggest of the Big Three, turned 100 years old in September, and two months later reported a third quarter loss of $4.2 billion, contributing to the $73 billion it claims to have lost since the end of 2004.

As a bittersweet birthday gift, GM wants inclusion in the massive financial bailout underway in Washington. Ford and Chrysler, the other two big carmakers, want in as well. Some in Congress want to see it happen, while other analysts are speculating that it needs to happen since GM’s collapse alone threatens to put 2.5 million people out of work and drop a nuclear bomb on an already devastated economy.

GM has had an impressive run, not only contributing cars and vehicle technology to the country and beyond, but even making roads safer by designing the concrete median safety barriers found on U.S. highways.

In light of their long and illustrious history, as well as their precarious financial situation, we present 5 things you didn’t know about General Motors.

1- GM pioneered the car payment

In 1919, GM established a financing arm in GMAC (General Motors Acceptance Corporation), which extended credit and created monthly payments for consumers, making it substantially easier for people to buy a car. This opened huge new markets for GM, and their rivals were quick to follow suit, with one exception -- Ford, their chief rival.

Why would Ford resist? President Edsel Ford, along with father Henry, regarded these credit extensions as potentially harmful to both car buyers and the larger economy. Nonetheless, they would eventually relent.

2- GM killed the steam locomotive

Long before anyone asked who at GM killed the electric car, the company had killed another old innovation: the steam locomotive. However, this one they killed by introducing a vastly more efficient technology: the two-stroke diesel engine.

The engine was introduced in the 1930s, and the Burlington Railroad was the first to use it in their stainless steel, state-of-the-art Burlington Zephyr. The Zephyr reached 112 mph and broke time records on its maiden run, slicing travel time from Denver to Chicago in half.

3- GM helped pioneer open heart surgery

Another thing you didn’t know about GM is their contributions to medicine.

When Detroit surgeon Dr. Forest Dodrill went looking for something to take the heart’s place in pumping blood so that surgery could be performed on the heart, he appealed to scientists at nearby GM Research Laboratories. The collaboration, along with help from the American Heart Association, resulted in the first mechanical heart pump, the Dodrill-GMR Mechanical Heart, which perhaps, not surprisingly, looked a whole lot like a scaled-down 12-cylinder internal combustion engine.

Developed in 1952, its impact was immediate when it was used that year in the first successful open heart surgery.

4- GM created the first fuel cell vehicle

GM’s list of “firsts” is both extensive and impressive, but after 100 years it’s also somewhat expected -- staying in business that long might otherwise be difficult.

One of their many firsts was the 1966 Electrovan, the first vehicle powered by a hydrogen fuel cell. The project began and ended with the Electrovan for many of the same reasons later fuel cell vehicles would struggle: it was cost-prohibitive, dangerous to operate (remember the Hindenburg?), there wasn’t (and still isn’t) an infrastructure to support hydrogen, and the vehicle weighed an extremely inefficient 7,100 pounds.

Modern descendants of the Electrovan include the Honda FCX Clarity and the Pininfarina Sintesi concept car. The BMW Hydrogen 7 doesn’t quite count, since she burns liquid hydrogen in a combustion engine.

5- GM put a man on the moon

The last thing you didn’t know about GM was that they put a man on the moon -- sort of.

GM’s involvement with the NASA space program dates back to the early 1960s, when GM’s AC Spark Plug division was one of five companies tapped by NASA to build the guidance and navigation systems for the Apollo space program, specifically Apollo XI’s trip to the moon. These systems would be utilized by Boeing in their 747s as well.

GM also contributed to the Apollo XV program; they designed the mobility system for the astronauts’ Lunar Roving Vehicle. [via ask men]

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