General Electric Co posted quarterly results that blew past Wall Street's expectations on Thursday, joining a wave of better-than-expected earnings in the U.S. manufacturing sector.

The largest U.S. conglomerate also raised its quarterly dividend by 1 cent to 15 cents per share, marking its third increase in the payout in the past year. Its shares rose nearly 4 percent in premarket trading.

The results reflected revenue growth across all of its industrial and financial businesses, with profit at GE Capital more than tripling and demand for railroad locomotives also bouncing back.

The world's biggest maker of jet engines and electric turbines said first-quarter earnings attributable to common shareholders came to $3.36 billion, or 31 cents per share, up from $1.87 billion or 17 cents per share, a year earlier.

Revenue rose 6 percent to $38.45 billion.

Factoring out one-time items, earnings came to 33 cents per share, easily exceeding the analysts' average estimate of 28 cents compiled by Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S. Revenue also topped Wall Street's $34.64 billion forecast -- which would have represented a decline, rather than a rise.

The Fairfield, Connecticut-based company has been cutting back its GE Capital unit, which Chief Executive Officer Jeff Immelt wants to represent 30 percent to 40 percent of earnings, rather than the more than half it generated before the 2008 financial crisis.

Refocusing GE on its industrial businesses has meant lowering revenue. The company also sold a 51 percent stake in the NBC Universal media business to Comcast Corp.

Expectations are high for manufacturers this earnings season. On Wednesday, United Technologies Corp, Honeywell International Inc and Eaton Corp reported results that topped analysts' expectations and raised their profit forecasts for the year.

Shares of GE were up 3.8 percent at $21.17 in trading before the market opened.

The stock has been particularly strong of late. At Wednesday's close, it had gained 10.8 percent since the start of the year, well ahead of the 4.4 percent gain in the broad Standard & Poor's 500 index.

The company has come under fire over the past month for its low 2010 U.S. tax bill, although it has denied reports that it paid no income taxes last year.

GE has also made a return to the takeover trail over the past six months, spending some $14 billion on acquisitions, primarily to boost its presence in the energy sector.

(Reporting by Scott Malone; Additional reporting by Nick Zieminski in New York; Editing by Bernard Orr and Lisa Von Ahn)