The Wizarding World of Schenectady: Rediscovering Charles Proteus Steinmetz
Most Upstate New Yorkers know that General Electric, now a multinational titan in the power generation world, was founded by none other than Thomas Edison, and in Schenectady, of all places. But while Edison is certainly a name Schenectadians—and the world, for that matter—remember, there was another man in town whose impact on the fields of science, engineering, mathematics and even politics was just as great, but whose name you’ve probably never heard. That man was Charles Proteus Steinmetz—a.k.a. Karl August Rudolph, a.k.a. The Wizard of Schenectady.
When Karl August Rudolph immigrated to the US from Germany in the late 19th century, he was placed in a detention pen because of a physical deformity that gave him a hunchback. He narrowly escaped being deported, thanks to help from a travel companion, and Americanized his name to Charles Proteus Steinmetz, adopting his middle name in a nod to the same-named hunch-backed sea god of Greek mythology. Steinmetz rose to prominence working as an engineer and inventor in Yonkers, NY, and Thomas Edison took notice. In 1892, GE bought the firm Steinmetz was working for, the scientist moved upstate to the GE headquarters and the Wizard of Schenectady was born.
Last Tuesday, Kingsway Community hosted a Zoom event with the Schenectady County Historical Society Education and Programs Manager Michael Diana that explored Steinmetz’s largely forgotten contributions to The Electric City. Dozens of residents of Kingsway’s senior apartments and senior living facilities, plus members of the community, tuned in. Did you miss the talk? No worries. We caught up with Diana after his presentation to learn more about the fascinating and brilliant character that was Steinmetz; check out our conversation below, or explore the historical society’s virtual Steinmetz exhibit.
Why do you think Charles Proteus Steinmetz isn't a household name like Thomas Edison is today?
The way history is remembered doesn't necessarily reflect the complexity of the past. It is interesting to see how relatively obscure Steinmetz is today compared to his other contemporaries. I think there are two big reasons for this. First, Steinmetz was brilliant in a way that's difficult for most average folks to understand. The kinds of work he did and the problems he solved require an in-depth knowledge to truly appreciate. For instance, he is credited with revolutionizing the mathematics behind Alternate Current circuits, innovating his own algebraic calculations to replace the much more complicated and time-consuming calculus-based calculations used before. Of course, that's something that would make a big difference for other electrical engineers but not necessarily mean much to the common observer. Edison, on the other hand, has a number of practical inventions, like the lightbulb, which entered into ubiquitous use. Steimetz doesn't have any similar trademark gadget to associate himself with. For instance, he led the development of the first man-made lightning generator. But who uses something like that?
I think another reason for his diminished legacy was his socialist sympathies. He wasn't just privately a socialist—he was publicly involved in local and national debates. People talk a lot today about "cancel culture," but don't let anyone ever tell you that's a new phenomenon. People have been "canceling" people since Socrates pissed off the priests in Athens. The end of Steimetz's life coincided with the First Red Scare and the Second Red Scare came just a generation later. For the General Electric company, careful to maintain a certain "American" image, Steinmetz was only so marketable a figure and far less palatable than the classical capitalist Edison.
How big a role did Steinmetz's work at GE play in the larger world of engineering?
Steinmetz's biggest contribution to the world of electrical engineering is bringing mathematical discipline to the field. Steimetz personally developed many equations that remain fundamental to modern electrical engineering, but beyond that, he pushed for mathematics education for future engineers. It might seem obvious to us today that an electrical engineer should be well versed in mathematics, and I'm sure a modern engineering curriculum would reflect that. However, this was not always the case. For instance, when Steimetz encountered the students coming to General Electric from Union College, he found them well versed in chemistry and physics but totally unprepared in math. And so he helped reestablish a department of mathematics at Union and taught there for many years.
What would you say was Steinmetz's biggest contribution to Schenectady specifically?
I would say that Steimetz's biggest contribution to the city of Schenectady would be his work on the board of education. Steinmetz was appointed to the board by Schenectady's (only) socialist mayor, George Lunn. This was during Lunn's first term as mayor, sometime around 1911. Schenectady's population had literally more than doubled in the previous decade and the city schools were struggling to keep up with the influx of students. Steinmetz believed education was not only a right but the key for human advancement and worked hard to ensure everyone had access to an education.
In general, Steinmetz worked to blunt some of the worst failings of the unbridled industrialization and capitalism of the early 20th century. He pushed for strict labor safety laws, the expansion of public utilities in the face of burgeoning urban populations and was a strong advocate for public parks.
What's the most interesting thing you've learned about Steinmetz from your research and the Steinmetz Collection at the Schenectady County Historical Society?
One interesting thing I learned about Steinmetz is that he kept all sorts of exotic animals in his home. He had pet rattlesnakes, Gilla Monsters, black widow spiders and even a few pet crows. Sadly, his home, one of the most impressive mansions in the GE realty plot, fell into disrepair and was torn down in 1937, just 14 years after his death. Herbert Hoover, of all people, raised tens of thousands of dollars to provide for its maintenance, but neither the State of New York nor the City of Schenectady wanted to take care of it.