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Charles Proteus Steinmetz, the Wizard of Schenectady

His contributions to mathematics and electrical engineering made him one of the most beloved and instantly recognizable men of his time.

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Steinmetz and his contemporaries (Tesla, Einstein and others) at the Marconi wireless station in New Jersey. Image courtesy of Wikicommons

He stood just four feet tall, his body contorted by a hump in his back and a crooked gait, and his stunted torso gave the illusion that his head, hands and feet were too big. But he was a giant among scientific thinkers, counting Albert Einstein, Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison as friends, and his contributions to mathematics and electrical engineering made him one of the most beloved and instantly recognizable men of his time.

In the early 20th century, Charles Steinmetz could be seen peddling pedaling his bicycle down the streets of Schenectady, New York, in a suit and top hat, or floating down the Mohawk River in a canoe, kneeling over a makeshift desktop, where he passed hours scribbling notes and equations on papers that sometimes blew into the water. With a Blackstone panatela cigar seemingly glued to his lips, Steinmetz cringed as children scurried away upon seeing him—frightened, he believed, by the “queer, gnome-like figure” with the German accent. Such occurrences were all the more painful for Steinmetz, as it was a family and children that he longed for most in his life. But knowing that his deformity was congenital (both his father and grandfather were afflicted with kyphosis, an abnormal curvature of the upper spine), Steinmetz chose not to marry, fearful of passing on his deformity.

Born in 1865 in Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland), Carl August Rudolph Steinmetz became a brilliant student of mathematics and chemistry at the University of Breslau, but he was forced to flee the country after the authorities became interested in his involvement with the Socialist Party.  He arrived at Ellis Island in 1888 and was nearly turned away because he was a dwarf, but an American friend whom Steinmetz was traveling with convinced immigration officials that the young German Ph.D. was a genius whose presence would someday benefit all of America. In just a few years, Steinmetz would prove his American friend right.

Soon after his arrival, he went to work for Eickemeyer and Osterheld, a company in Yonkers, New York, and he identified and explained, through a mathematical equation that later became known as the Law of Hysterisis, or Steinmetz’s Law, phenomena governing power losses, leading to breakthroughs in both alternating- and direct-current electrical systems. America was entering a golden age of electrical engineering, and when Thomas Edison and General Electric learned what Steinmetz was doing with electric motors in Yonkers, the company bought out Eickemeyer and Osterheld in 1892, acquiring all of Steinmetz’s patents as well as his services.

Steinmetz Americanized his name to Charles Steinmetz. He chose Proteus as his middle name—the nickname his professors in Germany had affectionately bestowed upon him in recognition of the shape-shifting sea god. In Greek mythology, Proteus was a cave-dwelling prophetic old man who always returned to his human form—that of a hunchback. Steinmetz thoroughly enjoyed the comparison.

In 1894 he arrived in Schenectady, the place he would call home for the next thirty years, and his impact at General Electric was immediate. Using complex mathematical equations, Steinmetz developed ways to analyze values in alternating current circuits. His discoveries changed the way engineers thought about circuits and machines and made him the most recognized name in electricity for decades.

Before long, the greatest scientific minds of the time were traveling to Schenectady to meet with the prolific “little giant”; anecdotal tales of these meetings are still told in engineering classes today. One appeared on the letters page of Life magazine in 1965, after the magazine had printed a story on Steinmetz. Jack B. Scott wrote in to tell of his father’s encounter with the Wizard of Schenectady at Henry Ford’s River Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan.

Charles Steinmetz, circa 1915. Image courtesy of Wikipedia

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.

Ford paid the bill.

Despite his professional successes, there was emptiness in Steinmetz’s life, which he rectified with a maneuver that helped secure his reputation as the “Bohemian scientist.” He spent his first few years in Schenectady in a “bachelor circle” of GE engineers, hiking, canoeing and experimenting with photography. Steinmetz became close friends with one of lab assistants, a thin, young blond man named Joseph LeRoy Hayden, as they developed the first magnetic arc lamp, later used to light street corners. Hayden began to cook for Steinmetz, and soon had a cot placed in his boss’s laboratory so he could nap during their marathon working hours. When Hayden announced that he intended to marry and find an apartment nearby, Steinmetz had an idea.

By the turn of the twentieth century, Steinmetz had started construction on a large house on Wendell Avenue, in the area where GE executives lived. A collector of rare plants, he had it designed with a greenhouse, as well as a laboratory, where he planned to work as much as possible to avoid going into the office. Once the mansion was finished, Steinmetz filled the greenhouse with orchids, ferns and cacti (he delighted in their strange shapes) and focused on the menagerie of animals he had always wanted. Like a mischievous boy, he was fascinated with anything that was lethal, and he gathered alligators, rattlesnakes and black widow spiders. The inventor Guglielmo Marconi once asked about Steinmetz about his Gila monster.  “He’s dead,” Steinmetz replied.  “He was too lazy to eat.”

Soon, Steinmetz was dining each night in his home with Hayden and his wife, Corrine, a stout, round-faced French-Canadian. The house was too large for Steinmetz, and the Haydens suspected what might be coming. Finally, Steinmetz turned to Corinne.

“Why don’t you come and live with me?” he asked.

Joseph Hayden was all for it. It would make their long working hours more convenient, and the house offered space he and Corrine could never afford on their own. Hayden had come to cherish Steinmetz’s eccentricities, and he understood that the Bohemian scientist really yearned for a family of his own. Corrine was reluctant, but Steinmetz gently wore her down.

“If we move in with you,” she eventually told him, “I must run the house as I see fit.”

“Of course, my dear,” Steinmetz replied, stifling a huge grin. Corrine Hayden then outlined the terms of their cohabitation—Steinmetz would pay only for his share of expenditures.  She would prepare and served meals on a regular schedule, no matter how important his and her husband’s work was. The men would simply have to drop everything and sit down to the table. Steinmetz agreed to all of Corrine’s terms.

The living arrangement, despite some awkward starts, soon flourished, especially after the Haydens began to have children—Joe, Midge and Billy—and Steinmetz legally adopted Joseph Hayden as his son. The Hayden children had a grandfather, “Daddy” Steinmetz, who ensured that they grew up in a household filled with wonder.  Birthday parties included liquids and gasses exploding in Bunsen burners scattered decoratively around the house. Not much taller than the children who ran about his laboratory and greenhouse, Steinmetz entertained them with stories of dragons and goblins, which he illustrated with fireworks he summoned from various mixtures of sodium and hydrogen in pails of water.

In 1922, Thomas Edison came to visit Steinmetz. By then, Edison was nearly deaf, and Steinmetz tapped out a message on Edison’s knee in Morse Code. Edison beamed, and the two continued their silent conversation in front of bewildered reporters.

Steinmetz’s fame only grew in the years he lived with the Haydens on Wendell Avenue. When a Socialist mayor took office, Steinmetz served as president of the Schenectady Board of Education and was instrumental in implementing longer school hours, school meals, school nurses, special classes for children of immigrants and the distribution of free textbooks.

One Friday afternoon in 1921, Steinmetz hopped in his electric car and headed off for a weekend at Camp Mohawk, where he’d built a small house overlooking Viele Creek. When he arrived he’d discovered that lightning had damaged the building and shattered a large silver glass mirror. He spent the entire weekend painstakingly reconstructing the mirror, placing the slivers between two panes of glass. Once assembled, he studied the pattern and was convinced that the shattered mirror revealed the lightning’s path of electrical discharge. Back at General Electric, he brought in a gigantic apparatus, then another. There were thunderous crashes at odd hours of the night. The city was abuzz with speculation. What exactly was the Wizard of Schenectady doing in Building 28?

In March of 1922, reporters were invited to General Electric and gathered before a model village that Steinmetz had constructed. In a noisy and explosive demonstration witnessed by Edison himself, Steinmetz unveiled a 120,000-volt lightning generator. With a showman’s flourish, he flipped a switch and produced lighting bolts that splintered large blocks of wood, decimated the steeple on a white chapel and split a miniature tree. Reporters were awestruck. The following day, a headline in the New York Times proclaimed, “Modern Jove Hurls Lighting at Will.” Steinmetz’s work led to the measures used to protect power equipment from lightning strikes.

But toward the end of Steinmetz’s life, according to his biographer, Jonathan Norton Leonard, “his scientific work had become rather like a boy’s playing with machinery.” He had by then earned the respect of electrical engineers for his contributions to the field, but Steinmetz, at the peak of his celebrity, simply could not help but delighting in the kind of pseudo-science he would have scorned earlier in his career. Proteus was as happy as he’d ever been in his life.

In the fall of 1923, Steinmetz and his family traveled west by train, stopping to see the Grand Canyon, Yosemite and the actor Douglas Fairbanks in Hollywood. The trip exhausted the 58-year-old scientist, and on October 26, back in his home on Wendell Avenue, his grandson Billy brought him breakfast on a tray, only to observe Steinmetz lying motionless on his bed, a physics book by his side.  In his sleep, doctors said, his heart had failed. The Wizard of Schenectady was gone.

Sources

Charles Steinmetz Papers, Schenectady County Historical Society, Schenectady, New York.

Books: John Winthrop Hammond. Charles Proteus Steinmetz: A Biography. Kessinger Publishing, 2006.  Ronald Kline. Steinmetz: Engineer and Socialist.  Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. Floyd Miller.  The Man Who Tamed Lightning: Charles Proteus Steinmetz. McGraw-Hill, 1962.  Jonathan Norton Leonard.  Loki: The Life of Charles Proteus Steimetz. Doubleday, 1929.  Betty M. Adelson.  The Lives of Dwarves: Their Journey from Public Curiosity to Social Liberation. Rutgers University Press, 2005.   Walter Hines Page, Arthur Wilson Page, The World’s Work: A History of Our Time, Volume 8. Doubleday, Page & Co., 1904.

Articles: “Modern Jove Hurls Lightning at Will.” New York Times, March 3, 1922.  “As ‘Proteus’ He Changed His Shape” Life, April 23, 1965.  “Letters to the Editors.” Life, May 14, 1965.  “Charles Steinmetz: Union’s electrical wizard.” Union College Magazine, November 1, 1998.  “Charles Proteus Steinmetz, Inventor.”  www.yonkershistory.org.

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