The world was watching when Charles Proteus Steinmetz and a few of his General Electric colleagues jumped on the train and headed south to New York City to meet Albert Einstein in April of 1921.
Imagine being a reporter assigned to cover the event, and you’re there with your pencil and pad ready to take notes when the two scientists meet in New Brunswick, New Jersey at RCA headquarters, about 40 miles outside New York. As they rush to greet each other, both wearing broad smiles, you’re hoping to catch every word of the conversation only to be hugely disappointed. The two great minds are speaking in German.
That’s how one newspaper reported the historical meeting, and if you’re a Steinmetz fan it’s one of many stories that make the man so endearing. The famous Einstein meets Steinmetz photograph from 100 years ago this week commemorates the meeting of the two men and others, and while you may have seen an image with just Steinmetz and Einstein pictured, that photo was the creation of the GE publicity department much later. That day in New Brunswick, New Jersey, there was a throng of individuals in the photo with them, including a few more of GE’s brightest minds, such as Ernst Alexanderson and Irving Langmuir.
Einstein and Steinmetz are clearly the two most recognizable faces in the crowd, and not just because they’re the center of attention. They really were two of the most famous people in the world at the time, and part of that in Steinmetz’s case was probably due to his physical appearance. You saw him once and you remembered. But despite his small frame – he wasn’t even five-foot-tall and suffered from dwarfism, hunchback and hip dysplasia – Steinmetz was quite a dashing figure.
A story in the Schenectady Gazette the next day told its readers of the sharp contrast between the two men.
“Einstein was indifferently dressed with a Bryanesque hat, celluloid collar, green knit tie and roomy gray overcoat with plenty of pockets and buttons,” read the article. “The Schenectady Wizard was almost dapperly arrayed in neat gray, tan oxfords, a blue striped shirt and blue tie. He wore no overcoat.”
Also, Steinmetz was not the socially awkward intellectual that many of his also-brilliant colleagues were. He often entertained friends at his home, loved a good party and a cigar, and didn’t limit his orbit to just science. He was a civic-minded individual who cared about all of society, not just his bottom line or the value of GE’s stock.
Born in what is now Poland, Steinmetz came to the U.S. in 1889, to Schenectady and GE in 1894, and worked here until his death in 1923 at the age of 58. There are so many reasons to admire the man, and while I feel like I know him pretty well, I always chase down three other guys, George Wise, Chris Hunter and Chris Leonard, when I really want to wade knee-deep into Steinmetz lore.
Wise, a retired GE employee and author of the digital book, “Edison’s Decision,” had this to say about the famous photograph.
“I got interested in the photo years ago when I recognized that an often used picture supposedly of Einstein and Steinmetz standing alone was really cut-and-pasted from the group photograph of the opening of the New Brunswick, New Jersey station of RCA,” said Wise. “I visited the station a couple of years ago. It is an important historical site, but the real hero of that day was Ernst Alexanderson, whose alternator was the basis of both the station and RCA. Steinmetz had begun that project but turned it over to Alexanderson, and Einstein just happened to be available for a photo op.”
Earlier this month Wise wrote a splendid article about Steinmetz and his connection to socialism for the Schenectady County Historical Society’s newsletter. He summed up his engaging read by writing about the man’s “fundamental humanity.”
“In the preface of his 1916 book [America and the New Epoch], he expressed gratitude for the advantages he personally possessed,” wrote Wise, “but, for him, mere gratitude was not enough. It had to be combined with what he called a ‘divine discontent,’ empowering him to fight against the social, political, physical and economic limitations that prevented other people from gaining the same advantages that he so fortunately enjoyed.”
Hunter, senior archivist at miSci, likes to point out that the photograph sometimes mistakenly identifies Nicolas Tesla as a member of the group (the guy in the back row between Einstein and Steinmetz), but that individual is actually John Carson of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company. Alexanderson, meanwhile, is the guy in the back row, second from the right. GE’s Irving Langmuir, winner of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry 11 years after this picture was taken, is just to the right of Steinmetz in the front row.
Like Wise, Hunter says Steinmetz was much more than just a brilliant scientific mind.
“There was a lot of interest in him locally, but he also had national and international impact,” Hunter said of Steinmetz. “He was the leading electric engineer of the day and was of vital importance to the development of our power system.
“And at the local level, he was a community leader, a practical joker, and a very likable guy,” continued Hunter. “He played a big role in the commission of a park system, the board of education and the city council.”
Leonard, the city historian, has combed through hundreds of Steinmetz letters and other documents at the historical society and Efner History Center. When talking about the Wizard of Schenectady, he’ll mention the more than 200 patents in Steinmetz’s name and the Law of Hysterisis (which we won’t get into here) among his many accomplishments.
“His presence brought other major scientists to Schenectady. Alexanderson came here specifically because Steinmetz was here,” said Leonard. “He had deep convictions around the value of schools and parks on young minds. Despite his stature, he stands as a giant among men. He didn’t let the cards he was dealt keep him down.”
And then Leonard mentions the really neat stuff.
“He owned an alligator, a Gila monster, two talking crows, and a world class succulent [plant] collection,” said Leonard.
After his meeting with Einstein, Steinmetz returned to Schenectady and began making presentations on Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. His first lecture, just five days after the New Jersey meeting, was at the All Souls’ Unitarian Church then located on the corner of Union Street and Wendell Avenue. Steinmetz had a wonderful capacity to explain the theory in layman’s terms, and his talk attracted such a large crowd that dozens of people were turned away. The church hosted Steinmetz again less than three weeks later, again with a turn-away crowd, and he continued to speak publicly about Einstein throughout the area for another five months. He also attracted large crowds eager to find out what the Theory of Relativity was all about in Pittsfield on Dec. 9, 1921, and in Springfield, Massachusetts on May 17, 1922.
A year and a half later, on Oct. 26, 1923, Steinmetz died at the age of 58. He is buried in Vale Cemetery alongside his older sister Clara, who passed away in 1940. Like Leonard says, “he stands as a giant among men,” and not just in the scientific realm. He was a beloved figure to Schenectadians of his day for a variety of reasons, and remains so to those of us who research his life and work today.
Check out Ron Kline’s biography of Steinmetz from 1992. Grab a copy of the historical society’s most recent newsletter and read Wise’s article. Pour through the folders of information on the man at the historical society. The more you look into Charles Proteus Steinmetz, the more you will like him. I guarantee it.