Thomas Edison was seldom seen around town. His friend, Charles Steinmetz, was often a man about town.
In little more than a month’s time, there will be no missing them around town.
The two geniuses who made Schenectady a household name in the late 1800s are being cast in bronze and will be erected just down the road from General Electric. The statues will be unveiled Friday, May 22, in a 3 p.m. ceremony in a pocket park at Erie Boulevard and South Ferry Street.
“This is about 100 years overdue,” said Brian Merriam, the Schenectady native and local businessman who’s led the campaign to erect statues of the prolific inventors.
With the help of the Chamber of Schenectady County’s fundraising arm, he has so far raised about $60,000 of the $80,000 needed for the project. On Thursday, General Electric pledged a $10,000 matching grant to help the project reach its final fundraising goal.
Edison, of course, is the reason GE exists today. He brought his electric company to Schenectady in 1886 and hired local people to manufacture the various components needed for his electrical systems. In 1892, his company merged with another to form General Electric Co., which went on to become one of the world’s biggest corporations, employing upward of 40,000 people in Schenectady by the Second World War.
Steinmetz, while not nearly as well known worldwide, was a memorable local figure and a good friend of Edison’s. A brilliant mathematician and engineer from Germany, Steinmetz arrived in the U.S. in 1889 and was nearly turned away at Ellis Island for his looks. He was a dwarf, suffering from hunchback and dysplasia and described as having a “large head, bristly beard and spindly legs.” GE snatched him up in 1894, and he went on to foster the development of electrical power around the world.
“Edison and Steinmetz were innovators and it’s a spirit that is alive and well in GE today,” said GE spokesman Thomas Schwendler in a statement. “Our employees work in labs like GE Global Research, and factories like our Steam Turbine and Generator operation here. They are inventing the next industrial era much like our earlier innovators did.”
The statues will feature plaques describing the accomplishments of Edison and Steinmetz, and the fame they brought to the city more than a century ago. There will also be a plaque listing GE accomplishments over the decades.
“We can think of no greater way to help in preserving history, but more importantly, helping to inspire future generations in telling the GE story,” Schwendler said. “We’re really pleased to be able to support this.”
Dexter Benedict, a sculptor and owner of the Fire Works Foundry in Yates County, is building the statues. His other work includes statues of Benjamin Franklin, U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Robert H. Jackson and American businessman James Cash “J.C.” Penney Jr.
As Benedict has toiled away on the statues in recent months, Merriam has been reaching out to local education officials about the possibility of developing educational programs that could inspire the future Edisons and Steinmetzes of the world.
“We are looking to foster a mentorship program,” he said. “My opinion from Day One was that the statues will be wonderful, but I don’t want to be accused of looking backward. We want to inspire the current generation and the next generation.”
Together with the local chapter of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Merriam is applying for grants that would help fund a local mentorship and curriculum program. IEEE Schenectady Chair Vince Forte said the goal is to have adults from the association work with middle school students, especially those from struggling neighborhoods, to show them opportunities they may not know are out there.
“We have hundreds of electrical engineers in this area,” Forte said. “The school systems are already doing fantastic work when it comes to STEM education, and we think we can help support that. The exact details have yet to be fleshed out, but we would love to volunteer some time to talk to students and help motivate them and help show them that there is a path to go from where they are now to where they might not have even thought to dream of going.”
The program would also involve Union College, which has long been a vocal cheerleader of Steinmetz and his many contributions to the community. In addition to serving as presidents of the Schenectady school board and City Council, Steinmetz helped launch Union College’s electrical engineering department before his death in 1923.
To learn more about the statue project or to donate online, visit www.2wizards.org. Donations can also be mailed to The Chamber of Schenectady County at 306 State St., Schenectady, NY 12305 with checks payable to “Schenectady County Chamber of Commerce Foundation, Statuary Project.”