Monday, April 8, 2013

Happy Birthday, Charles Steinmetz!

Charles Steinmetz at work. Photograph from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 

"Through a decade he led the advance of electrical engineers to the modern understanding of the electric circuit, the transformer, induction motor, alternator and high-voltage phenomena. Dr. Steinmetz assisted his brother engineers by an untold degree by his books, papers and discussions, by his profoundly intelligent vision and by his example of persistent, ably directed enthusiasm." 
- Professor Harris J. Ryan, President of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers

"mathematics to Steinmetz was muscular strength and long walks over the hills and the kiss of a girl in love and big evenings spent swilling beer with your friends"
- John Dos Passos, The 42nd Parallel

April 9, 1865 marks the birth of one of the most famous Schenectadians - Charles Proteus Steinmetz. Known as the "Wizard of Schenectady," Steinmetz was a mathematician and engineer. He was born in Breslau, Germany, and came to the United States at age 24 to work for the General Electric Company. After working in Lynn, Massachusetts, Steinmetz moved to Schenectady, where he lived until his death in 1923.

Charles Steinmetz at his camp along the Mohawk River to the west of Schenectady. Photograph from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 

Steinmetz is best known for his work in developing a mathematical method of understanding alternating current using complex numbers, which allowed engineers to extend the transmission of electrical current over long distances and enabled the great expansion of the electric power industry in the United States. His research on magnetism led him to his discovery of the law of hysteresis, which allowed inventors to design motors that would not overheat. After he began working for General Electric, he very quickly became a star engineer for the company. He helped to found the GE Research Laboratory and was a distinguished professor at Union College, where he founded the electrical engineering program. In 1916, he built a lightning generator. His discoveries with the generator helped to create efficient devices to harness electricity for use in industry. Steinmetz also held over 200 patents. 

In addition to his achievements as a scientist and mathematician, Steinmetz was well known for his activity as a Socialist. His political convictions began when he was a young man in Germany; increasing scrutiny of Socialist activity likely contributed to his decision to leave the country (his home life with his family was also tense). Steinmetz began serving on the Board of Education in 1908, where he introduced free textbooks for primary-level students, established a free lunch program, and advocated for special education programs. When the Socialist Party came to power in Schenectady with the election of Mayor George Lunn, Steinmetz was elected President of the Common Council and was appointed to serve as President of the Board of Education. Following the Russian Revolution, Steinmetz wrote to Vladimir Lenin, offering to help electrify Russia. Lenin declined the offer, but sent a photograph of himself and signed it "To the highly esteemed Charles Proteus Steinmetz, one of the few exceptions to the united front of representatives of science and culture opposed to the proletariat." 

Charles Steinmetz with his adopted grandchildren -- Billy, Marjorie ("Midge"), and Joe Hayden -- and actor Douglas Fairbanks in Hollywood, ca. 1923. Photograph from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 

Steinmetz suffered from dwarfism, hunchback, and hip dysplasia, which ran in his family; he chose not to marry and create a family for fear of passing on his conditions to children. However, he longed for family life. Steinmetz became very close friends with one of lab assistants, Joseph LeRoy Hayden. Eventually, Hayden and his wife, Corinne, moved into Steinmetz's Wendell Avenue home. Steinmetz legally adopted Joseph Hayden as his son, and Joseph and Corinne's three children had "Daddy" Steinmetz for their grandfather. "He was a perfect dear, and I really can't say enough about him," 94-year-old Marjorie Hayden said of Steinmetz in 2003. "Whatever we wanted, he got for us. We were completely spoiled by him."

In addition to his achievements in life, Steinmetz was known as a colorful character. He kept a strange assortment of animals at his home, including owls, alligators, a raccoon, and a Gila monster. He was almost always seen chomping on a cigar -- even when swimming. He kept up an active social life and was known as an avid card-player and practical joker. His colleague Ernst Berg later recalled "it seems extraordinary that so much real work was done because we played so much."

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