Schenectadians have always taken a keen interest in the story of Charles Proteus Steinmetz, and with the release of an hour-long documentary on the General Electric scientist earlier this month, his fame may once again spread throughout New York and the country.
“Divine Discontent,” an hourlong film by Bruce Carlin and Paul Frederick, was screened at Proctors last week and has since been broadcast twice by WMHT, the Capital Region’s public television station. Robert Altman, president of WMHT, introduced the film at Proctors last Tuesday night, and he will again offer a few thoughts on the documentary before a free screening tonight at 6 in the Reamer Auditorium on the campus of Union College.
“The fascinating thing about Steinmetz is that on one hand, he was so deeply rooted in Schenectady because of his work with GE, the school board and other civic issues, but in another respect, he was a citizen of the world,” said Altman. “He was one of the most famous scientists in the world during his day, and I would think his life would be of interest to people not only in this area, but around the state and nationally.”
Altman said the film will be offered in the next few months to other PBS affiliates around the state, and he’s hopeful there will be some interest nationally.
“I think Bruce and Paul did a terrific job,” Altman said of the film, which follows the life of Steinmetz, a brilliant electrical engineer who was born in 1865 in Germany and died in 1923 in Schenectady. “It was a very thoughtful look at an extraordinary and interesting individual. We certainly got a lot of positive feedback from people, so we were thrilled by the response.”
Steve Rockwell, a researcher for the Edison Tech Center who has studied Steinmetz and George Westinghouse Jr., as well as George Westinghouse Sr., gave the film high marks.
“I thought it was a very nice program, very watchable,” said Rockwell, who was at Proctors last week for the initial screening. “I have no serious consideration against it, no criticism at all. I thought they did a fine job.”
The film interviewed Steinmetz expert Ron Kline, a Cornell University professor who wrote a book on Steinmetz in 1992; MySci curator Chris Hunter; and Texas A&M professor Julia Kirk Blackwelder, who is writing a history of the General Electric Co. due out this fall.
Carlin and Frederick, who live in the Plattsburgh area, did much of their research for the film at the Schenectady County Historical Society. Melissa Tacke, librarian and archivist at the society’s Grems-Doolittle Library, also watched the documentary at Proctors with a crowd of about 150 people.
“I thought the film was very well done, and it’s a wonderful tribute to an important man in the history of technology and in the history of Schenectady,” said Tacke. “I think Steinmetz’s story is so compelling because he was such a multifaceted person. Aside from the work for which he is most known, he also touched this community with regard to politics and education.”
When Steinmetz wasn’t enhancing the use of alternating current in the burgeoning world of electricity over the first two decades of the 20th century, he was serving as president of either the school board or City Council. He also found the time to create an engineering program at Union College. John Spinelli, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering and chairman of the department, came away impressed with the film.
“They managed to pull together so many different aspects about Steinmetz into just an hour,” said Spinelli, who was interviewed in the film. “I thought they did a remarkable job.”
Spinelli regularly attends the Unitarian Universalist Society of Schenectady, where Steinmetz, while not typically a churchgoer, was a member. “I got some great feedback, and a lot of people from the Unitarian Society have walked up to me and said how they saw it and really liked it,” he said. “A lot of people from that group used to work at GE, so they were very interested in Steinmetz. Everybody I talked to said they did a great job.”
Tonight’s screening comes two days before the Steinmetz Symposium on Friday at Union.
“It’s the one day a year where we don’t hold any classes and we have a campuswide symposium devoted to student research in any field,” said Spinelli. “We’ll have student presentations on every topic you could imagine. People look forward to it as the best day of the year on campus.”