What would Thomas Edison be telling us? Or Charles Steinmetz?
Statues of the two most iconic figures in General Electric history have been decorating lower Erie Boulevard in downtown Schenectady since May 2015, and at some point late last week someone added surgical masks to the faces of both men.
Both scientists lived through the 1918 Flu Pandemic, which killed approximately 650,000 people in the U.S., and with the world currently dealing with the coronavirus, someone with a sense of humor, and possibly an important message to relate, decided to equip each statue with a mask.
“I thought it was great, and it was not only timely but also funny,” said Brian Merriam, president of the Merriam Insurance Company and chairman of the Edison-Steinmetz Statuary Project. “I think humor is a wonderful relief valve when virtually everything else looks dark and gloomy.”
Former Union College professor Frank Wicks, along with Merriam a big force in the creation of the statues, also thought the prank was a good one and well-intentioned.
"The masks may be inspired by the 1918 Flu when Edison would have been 71 and Steinmetz 53,” said Wicks. “They may be a timely joke on Charles and Tom, but they can also send a timely message of caution to all. Thus, the statue and jokester is providing an unintended but vital community service.”
The statues were sculpted by Penn Yan artist Dexter Benedict and unveiled in May 2015. Funding for the statues was raised by the Schenectady County Chamber of Commerce and by donations from the public.
According to Merriam, Edison and Steinmetz would have been on the same page in regards to the coronavirus, but may have approached the issue differently.
"Tom would be thinking to himself, 'This is a problem for which a solution is needed, and for which a dollar can be earned,’” said Merriam. "After all he was all about the monetizing of the invention. Charlie, on the other hand, would have had a great heart of compassion, and would have been concerned, not only for his fellow citizens but especially the poor and marginalized among us that don’t have the opportunities that some of us do.
“To this, Tom would have then said, ‘You look beyond the opportunity, my dear friend Charlie. I would encourage you to remember that we can not do anything for society unless we have the money with which to do it.'"
City Historian Chris Leonard, who has closely researched Steinmetz, concurred with Merriam’s assessment of the man known as the Wizard of Schenectady.
“Steinmetz, being civic-minded, would have strongly supported self-distancing,” said Leonard. “Even so, he would have looked for ways to help those in need, no matter the personal sacrifice involved.”
Steinmetz’s civic contributions to society are nearly as numerous as his scientific ones, according to Leonard.
“He earnestly supported all children having playgrounds as chair of the city’s Parks Department,” he said. “He was also chair of Schenectady’s Board of Education and chair of the Common Council, and supported local libraries and programs to make sure Schenectady schoolchildren had lunches.”
Among the previous times the statues were decorated was in October 2016 as the winter was coming, in a "yarn bombing" as someone dressed them both in colorful crocheted hats and shawls.
Previous: Edison, Steinmetz get cuddly winter yarn bombing, Oct. 18, 2016