The idea really wasn’t that far-fetched, according to documentary filmmaker Bruce Carlin: Was world famous General Electric scientist Charles Steinmetz a spy for Germany during World War I?
The answer is a resounding “no,” but in their upcoming film, “Divine Discontent: Charles Proteus Steinmetz,” Carlin and co-producer Paul Frederick raise that possibility after having learned the “Wizard of Schenectady” was the subject of a secret government investigation in 1917.
“I think in that time period it was very possible that there were spies doing work for foreign governments,” said Carlin, a resident of West Chazy, near Plattsburgh. “It’s understandable given the fact that Steinmetz was German and outspoken against the war. It certainly would have been something worth checking.”
The Department of Justice’s Bureau of Investigation, the forerunner to the FBI, had a file on Steinmetz with 88 pages of information. None of it, however, was very incriminating, despite the fact Steinmetz did make a strong stance against U.S. involvement in the conflict.
“Looking at all the files, it seems the investigation was more about people writing to the FBI with some animosity toward Steinmetz, rather than the FBI really going after Steinmetz,” Carlin said. “I guess they had to look into it because you never know what you might uncover, but there’s nothing really there.”
Carlin and Frederick were well into their work on the documentary when they were contacted by Museum of Innovation and Science curator Chris Hunter about the government file on Steinmetz, discovered by Toronto researcher David Evans.
“It was a fascinating read,” said Frederick, who is also serving as videographer and editor. “There probably was good reason to be concerned, with Steinmetz being from Germany, but the more you looked at it, the more it looked like stuff from a disgruntled co-worker. It was sour grapes from some fellow engineer, and really nothing to it. That’s what the agent said when he finally closed the file.”
The individual most responsible for the file on Steinmetz was GE engineer Charles L. Clark, who had plenty of material in his Steinmetz dossier. The files reveal a government agent met Clark at his home in Schenectady in 1917 to take a closer look at Steinmetz.
Born in Breslau, Germany, on April 9, 1865, Steinmetz moved to the U.S. in 1889 and came to Schenectady to work for GE in 1893. His dwarfism (he also suffered from hunchback and dysplasia) made Steinmetz an easily recognizable figure around town, and his knack for using mathematical theory to enhance the use of electricity made him one of the top civil engineers in the world.
But when World War I began in 1914, Steinmetz was sympathetic to Kaiser Wilhelm and had been outspoken in his desire to see the U.S. remain on the sidelines. He supported the Fatherland as late as January 1917, but in April of that year, when the U.S. did finally join the Allies’ effort, Steinmetz was on board.
“Only when final action is taken and is irrevocable, then all citizens must rally around the government,” Steinmetz wrote in a newspaper editorial.
In a 1992 biography, “Steinmetz: Engineer and Socialist,” Cornell University professor Ron Kline wrote of his subject: “Once he had made the decision he turned to war problems with some enthusiasm.”
According to George Wise, a former GE employee who has made numerous presentations on the history of the company, the notion Steinmetz was a spy for Germany holds no credibility.
“I’m not surprised that the government had a file on Steinmetz,” said Wise, who was not aware of Evans’ discovery, “but it would have amazed me if they found anything on him. He was controversial early in the war and was chairman of a rally to keep the U.S. out of the war. But the idea that he was anything but patriotic and had anything but love for America is wrong. I don’t think there’s any question he was a loyal U.S. citizen.”
Carlin and Frederick are in the process of finishing the documentary and are hopeful PBS stations throughout New York will air the hour-long film in late February or early March.
Along with Hunter, historians interviewed in the film include Union College professor John Spinelli, Union College archivist Ellen Fladger and Paul Israel, director and editor of the Thomas Edison Papers at Rutgers University.