The Wizard of Schenectady

steinmetz with tesla and einstein in New Jersey

Steinmetz -- with Einstein, Tesla, Langmuir and others -- in New Jersey in 1921.

The Smithsonian's "Past Imperfect" blog has a post about Charles Steinmetz -- the "Wizard of Schenectady" -- this week is that is completely jammed full of awesome. A clip:

He stood just four feet tall, his body contorted by a hump in his back and a crooked gait, and his stunted torso gave the illusion that his head, hands and feet were too big. But he was a giant among scientific thinkers, counting Albert Einstein, Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison as friends, and his contributions to mathematics and electrical engineering made him one of the most beloved and instantly recognizable men of his time.
In the early 20th century, Charles Steinmetz could be seen peddling his bicycle down the streets of Schenectady, New York, in a suit and top hat, or floating down the Mohawk River in a canoe, kneeling over a makeshift desktop, where he passed hours scribbling notes and equations on papers that sometimes blew into the water. With a Blackstone panatela cigar seemingly glued to his lips, Steinmetz cringed as children scurried away upon seeing him--frightened, he believed, by the "queer, gnome-like figure" with the German accent. Such occurrences were all the more painful for Steinmetz, as it was a family and children that he longed for most in his life. But knowing that his deformity was congenital (both his father and grandfather were afflicted with kyphosis, an abnormal curvature of the upper spine), Steinmetz chose not to marry, fearful of passing on his deformity.

The post was written by Gilbert King and it's a good, quick read of Steinmetz's story. It includes a bunch of great little stories, including one of our favorites, about Steinmetz and Henry Ford (as the story goes, Steinmentz sent Ford what may be the greatest invoice in the history of consulting (or perhaps it was GE, the story has a lot of variations)).

The term genius gets thrown around a lot -- but Steinmetz really was one. And a total character.

Tangent: There needs to be a comic/graphic novel/TV series/something in which Steinmetz's genius scientist/engineer identity is a cover for being some sort of superhero.

(Thanks, Brandon!)

photo from the Franklin Township Public Library collection via Wikipedia

Comments

It's almost impossible to do Steinmetz justice in a short post, or a dozen short posts. He was a progressive socialist who served as president of both Schenectady's school board and its common council (not long after, Schenectady had a socialist mayor). He taught at Union (some of his texts are still considered essential reading in electrical engineering), and essentially established what is now the GE R&D center, except when it began it was in the barn behind his house in Schenectady. He spent considerable time rowing on the Mohawk River in Glenville. And he's buried in Vale Cemetery:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/carljohnson/1569028130/

Oh, and somebody should tell the Smithsonian there's no record of Steinmetz having sold bicycles. More likely he pedaled than peddled.

Strange how young both Einstein and Langmuir look in this 1921 photo, compared with the 1927 Solvay Conference photo. Both of them seemed to have developed an awful lot of grey in just 6 years, unless the date on this photo is incorrect.

You left out the best part.

Steinmetz Americanized his name to Charles Steinmetz. He chose Proteus as his middle name—the nickname his professors in Germany had affectionately bestowed upon him in recognition of the shape-shifting sea god. In Greek mythology, Proteus was a cave-dwelling prophetic old man who always returned to his human form—that of a hunchback. Steinmetz thoroughly enjoyed the comparison.

Everyone recognizes Telsa, Einstein, and Steinmetz. Who are the others in this photo? What was the occasion for the photo? What is the date and location? This photo is often cropped so that it appears that only Telsa and Einstein were present.

I'm not saying they never met, but I don't think that's Tesla in that photo. Tesla was over 6' 2" tall while Einstein was about 5' 9". Tesla would have been the tallest dude in the photo. Just saying ???

Let's pretend this is a funny caption contest. "Would you buy an atomic bomb from these guys?"

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