Thomas Edison and Charles Steinmetz are now permanent residents of downtown Schenectady.
Technically, the pioneers in the field of electricity are buried in West Orange, New Jersey, and Vale Cemetery in Schenectady, respectively. But their likenesses — a tall, wispy-haired Edison and a famously hunchbacked Steinmetz — are now cast in bronze just a stone’s throw from General Electric’s original headquarters in Schenectady.
More than 100 local officials, history lovers and businessmen and women gathered to watch their unveiling Friday morning at the corner of Erie Boulevard and South Ferry Street. The moment, according to Schenectady native and businessman Brian Merriam, was long overdue.
“This project is about 75 years overdue, wouldn’t you say?” he remarked to the crowd.
The president and fourth-generation owner of Merriam Insurance Agency, a family-run business that’s been in Schenectady for more than a century, led the $75,000 campaign to erect the statues. The Chamber of Schenectady County lent its fundraising arm to the effort, setting up the campaign as a foundation project to allow tax-deductible donations.
Edison and Steinmetz changed the world with their innovative spirit and accomplishments, but even non-historians who reside locally know Schenectady was forever changed by their presence and their work.
“Both epitomized the American dream for success,” a plaque beneath their bronze feet reads. “Edison was profoundly hearing-impaired and Steinmetz suffered from dwarfism and scoliosis, yet both became towering figures whose many accomplishments helped establish General Electric as the dominant electrical company in the world and Schenectady as a leader in the miraculous new age of electricity.”
Although Edison didn’t spend much time in Schenectady, the prolific inventor brought his electric company to an old broomcorn field in the city in 1886 and hired local farm boys to manufacture the various components of his electrical systems. In 1892, his company merged with another, and General Electric was born. At the peak of the World War II, GE employed more than 40,000 people in Schenectady.
Steinmetz, known as the Wizard of Schenectady, was a regular presence around town. A brilliant mathematician and engineer from German Prussia, it wasn’t long after he had immigrated to America that Edison snatched him up to come work at GE in Schenectady, where he went on to foster the development of electrical power around the world.
His dwarfism, large head, bristly beard and spindly legs made him a scary sight to local children, according to local accounts at the time, but adults knew him to be as generous as he was genius. He served as president of the school board, president of the City Council and founder of the city park system and helped launch an electrical engineering department at Union College.
“This statue is about Schenectady’s future,” said Union College President Stephen Ainlay at the unveiling ceremony. “It’s not just about a time gone by or a greatness that is no longer part of this city. This statue serves as a reminder to all of us that there is an amazing magnetic quality to this area that is still as much here today as it was in the 19th century. This statue should remind every schoolchild in the Schenectady school system of the possibilities and opportunities of this great region.”
The statue project also comes with an educational component. The local chapter of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers is applying for a $100,000 grant that would help establish a local mentorship and curriculum program with Union College and the Schenectady City School District to inspire the future Edisons and Steinmetzes of the world.