Perhaps it doesn’t quite say “Union College” like the Nott Memorial or Chester A. Arthur’s statue, but Charles Steinmetz’s electric car is still one of the campus’s more iconic symbols.
Wednesday afternoon, on Steinmetz’s 149th birthday, college officials made sure the 1914 Duplex Drive Brougham will remain a popular part of school lore by putting it back on display in the first-floor corridor between the Peter Irving Wold Center and the Olin Center just northeast of Schaffer Library.
A General Electric scientist who brought fame to the city as the “Wizard of Schenectady,” Steinmetz also helped create the electrical engineering department at Union College. While the Wold and Olin Center were built long after Steinmetz’s death in 1923, placing his automobile at that location is most appropriate, according to Union College President Stephen C. Ainlay.
“When you walk into this place, the first lab is an acoustics lab, which is a joint program between our electrical-engineering program and our music department,” he said. “In many ways, that manifests Steinmetz’s interdisciplinary nature because he was a big believer in the liberal arts. So, while he never walked these hallways, his spirit is very much consistent with what these hallways are all about.”
The 100-year-old automobile was found abandoned in a field in Glenville more than 40 years after Steinmetz’s death. In 1971, it was purchased by Union College and within 10 years was restored fully by the school’s faculty and student body.
“It was a rotting hulk, but fortunately it was made of aluminum so what it needed was some paint and polish,” said John Spinelli, Union College’s Horace E. Dodge III professor of electrical and computer engineering. “There were other parts that needed to be extensively rebuilt and replaced, and we also had help from some GE engineers and some local artisans. Over a long period of time, about 10 years, it was worked on and by 1981 was in perfect operating order.”
The car has been a part of nearly every Union College commencement ceremony since 1981, and will be used again at this year’s graduation ceremony. At times it has also been on display at miSci and more recently the Edison Tech Center, which had the car in its front window for nearly five years. Late last spring, the car was moved from the Edison Tech Center’s Broadway location back to the campus.
“It’s been in a garage on Lenox Avenue, and that’s where it usually is when it’s not being used for the commencement,” said Spinelli. “Now, it has a permanent home, and the front doors of the Wold Center are being modified so we can easily drive the car in and out of the building, and in and out of the display. This time we just barely made it.”
Wednesday’s ceremony attracted a number of school officials, students and interested onlookers, including Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy, miSci curator Chris Hunter and Edison Tech Center President Craig Cantello. A cake celebrating the automobile’s 100th birthday was also part of the event.
“The car was, in some sense, being underappreciated by the community, so we wanted to put it in some place where everybody could see it,” said Ainlay. “It is inspiring, and this seemed like the right spot, between the Wold and Olin Center.”