The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were a very exciting time in the world of electrical engineering. During this period, electricity transformed from a scientific novelty to an essential part of our modern lives. You've probably heard the names of a few of the great electrical pioneers from this era, like Thomas Edision and Nikola Tesla, but have you ever heard of Charles Proteus Steinmetz? His name may not be as well known as some of his more famous contemporaries, but Steinmetz was one of the greatest electrical engineers of his time, and his contributions to the study of alternating current helped create the highly technological society we live in.
The Steinmetz Digital Collection of Schenectady is a rich collaborative digital collection, and includes items digitized by the Schenectady County Historical Society, the miSci Museum of Innovation and Science, and the Edison Tech Center. The materials in this collection have helped give life to the story of Charles Proteus Steinmetz. The Schenectady County Historical Society and miSci are members of the Capital District Library Council.
Charles (born Karl August Rudolph Steinmetz) emigrated from Germany to the United States in 1889, where he first worked for Rudolph Eickemeyer in Yonkers. Edison and General Electric acquired all of Steinmetz’s patents when they bought Eickenmeyer's company in 1892, and Steinmetz began his long career with General Electric at this time. In 1894, Steinmetz moved to Schenectady, which would become his home for the next 30 years.
Steinmetz suffered from dwarfism, hip dysplasia, and a hunchback. He never married, but he developed a very close relationship with his young lab assistant, Joseph Hayden. Steinmetz invited Hayden and his wife, Corrine, to move into his large Wendell Avenue home in Schenectady. The fatherly relationship between Steinmetz and the Haydens flourished, and Steinmetz legally adopted the Hayden family in 1906. Thus the Haydens' three children also became Steinmetz's grandchildren.
Steinmetz was a firm Socialist, and he believed that technology and machines were the key to eliminating human suffering and toil, and creating a wealthy and abundant society for everyone. He believed in participating in his community, and served on both the Schenectady Board of Education, and on the City Council. He always remained a strong supporter of the common laborer. At one point in his later life, Steinmetz stopped smoking his favorite cigars because they were made in a non-union shop, and sought out cigars made in union shops, instead.
Above all, Charles Steinmetz had a wonderful sense of humor and wit, and he valued his leisure time and family camping excursions to nearby rivers and lakes. A favorite pastime was watching the Schenectady bathtub races in the Mohawk river, as seen in this photograph taken by Steinmetz:
One interesting anecdote told by the son of an engineer at Henry Ford's River Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan illustrates the lasting impression Steinmetz left on those who knew and worked with him:
Ford, whose electrical engineers couldn’t solve some problems they were having with a gigantic generator, called Steinmetz in to the plant. Upon arriving, Steinmetz rejected all assistance and asked only for a notebook, pencil and cot. According to Scott, Steinmetz listened to the generator and scribbled computations on the notepad for two straight days and nights. On the second night, he asked for a ladder, climbed up the generator and made a chalk mark on its side. Then he told Ford’s skeptical engineers to remove a plate at the mark and replace sixteen windings from the field coil. They did, and the generator performed to perfection.
Henry Ford was thrilled until he got an invoice from General Electric in the amount of $10,000. Ford acknowledged Steinmetz’s success but balked at the figure. He asked for an itemized bill.
Steinmetz, Scott wrote, responded personally to Ford’s request with the following:
Making chalk mark on generator $1.
Knowing where to make mark $9,999.
(From the Smithsonian Magazine article, Charles Proteus Steinmetz, the Wizard of Schenectady)