In Schenectady there’s a small lot with a plaque to honor him on Wendell Avenue, a school in Mont Pleasant, and a park in the North End. But not many Schenectadians know much about him.
He’s Charles Proteus Steinmetz, and he deserves to be honored and remembered. Maybe more will now that a well-done documentary about him has been shown four times in the last week and a half — twice on public television station WMHT, once at Proctors and once at Union College.
The documentary is called “Divine Discontent,” a term commonly meant as a spiritual impulse to change, grow, create. Steinmetz wasn’t religious, but he had that discontent. He was a socialist in his native Germany who fled to Switzerland in 1888 when the government became suspicious of him (socialist parties and activities were outlawed under Bismarck), and immigrated to the United States in 1889.
After a company he worked for in Yonkers was bought by the then-startup General Electric Co., he moved to Lynn, Mass., and later to Schenectady in 1893.
Steinmetz was the original STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) man, a leading light at GE and professor and department chairman at Union College.
His formulas for alternating current helped revolutionize the young field of electricity and brought him international acclaim. In his day, he was considered the equal of Edison, Marconi and Einstein, all of whom visited him in Schenectady.
But Steinmetz was more than a scientist. He was also a man with a social conscience and concern for his new community and its working class.
So he ran for school board, pushing for more schools for the city’s fast-growing (thanks to GE) population. Not only was he elected, he became its president. Under his leadership eight new schools and three additions were built.
Steinmetz also served as president of the Common Council and chairman of the Planning and Parks Commission, where he was instrumental in developing the city’s extensive parks system.
Union College hasn’t forgotten him. Today it will hold its annual Steinmetz Symposium, a day where no classes are scheduled and there’s a campuswide symposium in which students make presentations on a wide variety of subjects. Steinmetz, with his beautiful mind and community spirit, would have liked that.