EDITOR’S NOTE: Today marks the kickoff to a 13-week series on General Electric and the incomparable impact the company’s had on Schenectady and the region since its founding 125 years ago. We open with a close look at GE’s two most prominent figures.
Oct. 18, 1922, was an unseasonably chilly and windy day in Schenectady, and when Charles Steinmetz took Thomas Edison by the arm and escorted him around the grounds of the General Electric plant that morning, many onlookers assumed the Wizard of Schenectady was just trying to steady the much older Wizard of Menlo Park. Others, however, interpreted Steinmetz’s gesture as a sign of deep respect and affection.
They were two of the world’s most recognizable faces, Edison the American icon and inventor of the incandescent light bulb, and Steinmetz, a German immigrant who helped the world better harness electrical power, ensuring it’s wide-spread commercial use and changing the way Americans spent their evening hours. Edison was just under 5-foot-11 and weighed around 200 pounds, while the diminutive Steinmetz, not even 5 feet tall, suffered from dwarfism, hunchback and hip dysplasia. Edison never took up residence in Schenectady, but his connection to the city was deep, and Steinmetz lived here from 1892 up until his death in 1923. They were two giants in the scientific world, and the sight of them walking around together and interacting was the high point in a day-long flurry of activity celebrating Edison’s first official visit to Schenectady in 30 years.
“They may have met in 1892, but at that time Steinmetz was the new kid on the block,” said miSci senior curator Chris Hunter, who has closely studied the relationship between the two men and their long and rich histories. “I think they did genuinely like each other, and in 1913 Edison wrote a letter to Steinmetz telling him about his mild dissipation and essentially the indigestion he got from attending a conference of the Illuminating Engineering Society. That’s not something you would share with even a mild acquaintance. There are other things to indicate that they were good friends, but that letter proved to me that they got along together pretty well.”
Edison initially came to Schenectady in 1886 to start up the Edison Machine Works, a new company under the umbrella of Edison Electric Light Company. In 1889, he combined all his businesses into the Edison General Electric Company, and in 1892 merged with Houston-Thomson of Lynn, Massachusetts to form General Electric. By that time, however, Edison was concentrating on things other than just electricity.
“He had already given up some control of his company in 1889, and in 1892 he was a little upset about having the Edison name dropped from the company,” explained Hunter. “He was more into working on the phonograph and motion pictures, and he was also interested in financing his iron ore mining operation in northern New Jersey at the time. So he decided to sell more of his electricity stock so he could fund the mining operation and other inventions. He basically got bought out.”
In Schenectady, however, he remained a towering figure to thousands of people, many of them immigrants looking for work to support their families and a new life. When he showed up in October of 1922, the city rolled out the red carpet.
“From employee recollections, we guess that Edison was probably here about a dozen times between 1886 and 1892,” said Hunter. “After that he may have passed through once or twice but not on an official visit. Then, in 1922, they talk about a 30-year gap between official visits and I think that’s probably reliable. When he comes in 1922, it is a huge event.”
Charles Steinmetz waits as Thomas Edison gets out of an automobile during his tour of Schenectady’s General Electric plant Oct. 18, 1922. (Provided)
Edison was 75 when he showed up in Schenectady in 1922. Steinmetz, born in 1865 in Breslau, Prussia (now Germany), was 57 and nearly as popular as Edison, and just as important, if not more, to GE’s success in the 20th century.
In his on-line book chronicling Schenectady’s 19th century, “Edison’s Decision,” GE retiree George Wise includes Edison and Steinmetz on a short list (with founder Arendt Van Curler, Union College’s Eliphalet Nott and locomotive manufacturer John Ellis) as two of the five most important individuals in Schenectady’s long history. He refers to Edison as the “absent angel,” while Steinmetz’s contribution in the electrical realm kept GE at the forefront of technology throughout much of the 20th century according to Wise.
“I think Edison is obvious, and as for Steinmetz I would say he educated the world in how to apply mathematics to electrical engineering and to the second alternating current revolution,” said Wise, who worked in the communications department at GE Global Research for 26 years. “Another good reason to put Steinmetz on that list is that he founded the GE research lab, ensuring that GE wouldn’t just be a manufacturing company selling one big item. In the first half of the 20th century, this area was the Silicon Valley of America, and we can thank Steinmetz for that.”
Along with his scientific contribution, Steinmetz was a big part of cultural improvements in Schenectady.
“He provided a progressive viewpoint that helped the Socialist administration of Mayor George Lunn build schools and parks,” Wise said of Steinmetz, who served both on the city council and the school board of education between 1912 and 1920. “There were a lot of immigrants coming to Schenectady back then. Steinmetz hoped they would have a better way of life in the 20th century, and he did as much as he could to see that happen.”
Along with his scientific and progressive outlook on life, Steinmetz also argued for a good, well-rounded liberal arts education. John Spinelli is a professor of electrical and computer engineering and computer science at Union College, where Steinmetz was head of the electrical engineering department from 1902-1913.
“He was a pioneer in the idea that engineers needed a broad, liberal education as opposed to just learning about technology,” said Spinelli, in his 28th year at Union. “Most schools that had engineering programs at that time just focused on engineering. Steinmetz thought that was a mistake, and he wrote some very persuasive articles where he argued how engineers, like artists and writers and others, need to understand life and people better to be real contributors.”
While they may not have met until 1892, by 1893 they already had plenty of mutual respect for each other. At Chicago’s 1893 Columbia Exposition, the two men ran into each other at a conference and Edison reputedly pointed at Steinmetz good-naturedly and said, “pure theory.” He then pointed at himself and said, “pure practice.”
The difference between the inventor-tinkerer Edison, who never attended college, and the engineer-mathematician Steinmetz (who went to the University of Breslau) may have been substantial and distinct to some, but Steinmetz didn’t think so. He once told an audience that Edison was always “declaring himself a mere practical man, and the newspaper men have expanded on this and so created the popular belief that Edison does not know anything about theory and science, but merely experiments and tries anything he or anybody else can think of. There is nothing more untrue than this. It is true Edison never went to any college – but he knows more about the subjects taught in colleges than most college men.”
Steinmetz, exhausted after a long cross-country train trip, died in his sleep on Oct. 26, 1923 at the age of 58. Edison passed away on Oct. 18, 1931 at his home in West Orange, New Jersey. He was 84.
Thomas Alva Edison
- Born: Feb. 11, 1847, Milan, Ohio
- Died: Oct. 18, 1931, buried behind his home, “Glenmont,” in West Orange, New Jersey
- Education: Very little formal schooling, self-educated
- Occupation: Inventor and businessman
- Major accomplishments: Inventor of incandescent light bulb, phonograph and motion picture camera. Holds over 1,090 patents
Charles Proteus Steinmetz
- Born: Breslau, Prussia, April 9, 1865
- Died: Oct. 26, 1923, buried at Vale Cemetery in Schenectady
- Education: University of Breslau
- Occupation: Mathematician, electrical engineer
- Major accomplishments: The Law of Hysteresis and fostered the development of alternating current. Holds over 200 patents