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Charles Proteus Steinmetz
The Man Who Either Tamed Lightning, Created Lightning, Neither, or Both

Charles Proteus Steinmetz

It's the Math, Stupid!

In the 1944 short film Busy Buddies, Moe walks to the kitchen of the Stooges' greasy spoon restaurant and sees Curly picking corn kernels from a cob using heavy duty carpenters pincers.

"Hey, you," Moe called, "Steinmetz! What you got? A new invention?"

"Yeah," said Curly. "A new way to make corn fritters."

In 1944 no one had to ask who Steinmetz was. He was the electrical scientist and engineer, Charles Proteus Steinmetz. Beginning in the late 19th century, Charles had enjoyed world-wide fame for his discoveries which helped propel electricity to become the most important power source of the modern world.

By the time Charles died in 1923, he was as famous as Albert Einstein. And his fame endured for decades. There were biographies on the bookshelves, and in 1956, there was a television show where Charles was played by Franchot Tone, whom you may have seen in Mutiny on the Bounty - that is, the version starring Clark Gable and Charles Laughton. The "presenter" of the show (to use the British patois) was some guy whose initials were RR.

But suddenly Charles dropped from the historical radar screen, and today you won't find any books about him in the few remaining bookstores. Even a search through an entire library system of a major metropolitan area found no - that's no!, keins!, nichts! - books about Charles at all.

And even if you search the world, you'll find that in the last half-century only one significant biography about Charles hit the shelves. Although an excellent book, the price was over 100 times what the kids paid for their books in the 1960's. And you had to wait until 2014 for another television show about Charles. So how the heck could anyone learn who Charles Proteus Steinmetz was?

Steinmetz Scholarship

Despite parental spittle-flinging diatribes that kids today don't know diddly, more kids read about Charles than did adults. You see, virtually all the mid-20th century biographies about Charles were intended for the kids. One of the most popular books was The Man Who Tamed Lightning, a repackaging of The Electrical Genius of Liberty Hall by the American writer Floyd Miller. And earlier books, if not written specifically for children, were at least written at their level.

These early books, we have to admit, can honestly be described as hagiographies. Many are also early examples of the - quote - "non-fiction novel" - unquote - and have invented - sorry, that's "recreated" - dialogue - and invented - again we mean "recreated" - scenes. This is particularly the case for juvenile books. So if you pick up two different books, you'll find the dialogue and scenes describing the same event vary considerably. Were we of a suspicious nature, we might even say the authors were making stuff up.

And most of all these books also came out when family values were paramount. So naturally the authors avoided topics like how Charles's dad had ...

Well, let's back up to Charles's life and times.

Aber Zurück Zunächst Nach Deutschland

Carl August Rudolf Steinmetz (sometime spelled "Karl") was born on April 9, 1865 in Breslau. At the time Breslau was in Germany - Prussia, actually - but now it's in Poland. And it's not Breslau anymore.

Carl was born with kyphosis and hip dysplasia. Because you'll read he stood only four feet tall, he is often said to have been a dwarf.

However, by comparing photographs of Carl standing next to men of known stature, a more accurate height seems to be about 4' 9" or maybe 4' 10". So correcting for his kyphosis, Carl would have stood over five feet - at least as tall as Ronnie Corbett; short of stature, yes, but not abnormally so. Also in photographs of Carl (particularly those of him sporting a tee-shirt), we see that his limb proportions were actually quite long. So a is that Carl did not actually suffer from one of the various conditions called dwarfism.

Whatever Carl's physical difficulties, his father and grandfather had also suffered from the same handicaps. Nevertheless, his dad found steady employment as a lithographer for the railroads - lithographers were in demand for making colored maps. So Carl grew up in what would have been comfortable circumstances except it was a rather large household for a railroad lithographer's salary to support.

You see, Carl's mom had died a year after he was born and his dad, Carl Heinrich Steinmetz asked his own mom and sister to come help raise Carl and his two daughters by a previous marriage. One of the girls was eight years old and the other fourteen. In that day and age such a household would be nothing unusual.

But the stepmother had also moved in, though "stepmother", is probably not the correct term. You see, it seems at some point Carl, Sr., had sowed some oats with a local lass and had reaped the harvest of his plowing - another daughter. Even after Carl's oldest daughter married and moved out, both Carl and his younger sister, Clara, were old enough to understand what the arrival of two hitherto unknown family members meant. So life chez Steinmetz must have been not only a bit crowded but - well, we'll call it "interesting".

Regardless of how strained his home life was, at school Carl excelled, particularly in technical subjects. When he graduated from the gymnasium - one of those famously tough Germanic high schools and pronounced gim-NAH-see-um - he entered the University of Breslau as a math and physics student.

One of the nice things about the German universities of the time was if you wanted to major in math or physics, you didn't have to worry about being well-rounded and take all those courses in humanities, philosophy, languages, and such stuff. You had all that dreck in the gymnasium. So out of over 50 courses that Carl took at the U of B, all were in either math or physics. He did so well that he was given a scholarship and was allowed to go on to get his Ph. D.

Although you would expect Carl to be shy and even withdrawn, he was actually quite gregarious and was well-liked by his teachers and fellow students. He joined various clubs which at the meetings always served plenty of that good Breslau beer.

Students also picked up nicknames. At the mathematical club, Carl was dubbed Proteus. Much of this has been made of the fact that Proteus was the mythological shape-shifter whose default form was that of a hunchback. Actually in the mythology, Proteus's normal form was a man but not necessarily deformed. The story was if you could hold onto him as he changed forms (sometimes even becoming water), he would impart much information and wisdom.

Soon Carl developed a reputation of being something of a wunderkind in his subjects, and he even defrayed the costs of his college fees by tutoring his fellow students. In any case, Carl seems not to have minded his moniker and indeed was quite proud of it.

There were also political clubs. You see, the 1880's was a time of change - perhaps even more so than our own. And like all times of change (at least before television, video games, and the Internet), the kids occupied their time by getting interested in politics.

But it was also a time when Europe was still ruled by kings and queens. And kings and queens don't take kindly to young whippersnappers talking about setting up new governments. Particularly those upstart democratic governments that don't need no monarchs.

The 19th century also saw the growth of political parties in the modern sense. And there were plenty of parties to choose from. You could be a Whig or a Tory in England, a Social Democrat in Germany, and there were Orléanists, Radicals, and Legitimists in France. In America you had the Democrats and Republicans, of course, but there was also the Populist Party, the Greenback Party, and the rising Prohibitionist party.

And everywhere there were socialists.

But in the 1880's the kings and queens were still in charge and they could outlaw political parties they didn't like. And the kings and queens hated the socialists.

But in Prussia things were strange. It was legal to be a socialist and campaign in elections. Socialists could even sit in the parliament (the Reichstag). But you couldn't belong to a socialist organization or run a socialist newspaper. Those activities could get you thrown in the slammer.

One of Carl's friends was a young man named Heinrich Lux. Heinrich was a dedicated socialist, and he and a friend, Alfred Plötz, had even gone so far as to try to set up a utopian community - and in Iowa of all places. Of course, this Utopia-in-Iowa, like Utopias everywhere, failed. Heinrich and Alfred refocused their efforts back to Germany.

Despite the law, Heinrich and Alfred supported a socialist newspaper with the help of some professors and Reichstag members. They also set up regular meetings. Then at one point Heinrich asked Carl to attend. Carl liked what he heard and became a devoted and life-long socialist.

But the socialism of Carl and his buddies was not, one writer cautioned, based on the now discredited class-war dogma of Karl Marx. It was "old fashioned socialism" where the young men (and women) were idealists who envisioned a world of no poverty, no war, and no multi-million dollar bonuses for CEO's whose stupid decisions drive their companies into bankruptcy and their employees out on the streets.

But if socialism was outlawed in Prussia, how could Heinrich's group publish a paper? Well, enforcement of the anti-socialist laws was sporadic. Besides, you could just avoid the word "socialist" in your group. So the organizations continued to meet and the papers published. Things would be OK as long as you didn't do something stupid.

Like have your picture taken next to a bust of Ferdinand Lassalle, a well-known socialist philosopher who had died a year before Carl was born.

Which is what Heinrich and his buddies did. And that included Carl.

The story told in Carl's biographies was that police got a copy of the photograph and began a crackdown. No one was easier to recognize than Carl. So he had to leave Breslau and quick. And he came to America.

Now you'll read on the Fount of All Knowledge that one of the modern biographers has found that the more "direct" cause of Carl's skinning out was really because he was in debt and because of family problems. Why, the article even gave us a footnote! So clearly the story of a persecuted young socialist fleeing Germany for freedom in America is one of the "Steinmetz myths" perpetrated by the Steinmetz mythologizers. Thank heavens for the Internet!

Nicht wahr?

Weeeeeeelllllll, not quite. Sometimes the "myth" is actually what really happened.

The footnoted reference of Charles being in debt and having family problems being the more "direct" cause of his flight completely misrepresents what the book actually says. You sometimes wonder if the footnoters actually read the book they footnoted.

The reference - while not denying Carl owed money and home life was likely strained - is unequivocal that Carl's socialist activities put him in serious trouble with the authorities. And the photograph with the bust of Lassalle was indeed the primary source the police used to identify the miscreants.

All but two of the young men in the photo were rounded up by the police - either as witnesses or as defendants. Some were released, some tried and acquitted. But others - including Henrich Lux - were convicted and imprisoned.

The two students not detained were Carl and his fellow socialist Ferdinand Simon. Ferdinand decided the best thing was to head to Zurich (in Switzerland). So with the other members of the club in the can, Carl decided to follow Ferdinand's example and "git". He also moved to Zurich, a good decision since soon the police issued a warrant for his arrest.

But what about the money and the problems at home? Are they simply a revisionist myth?

Not exactly. Carl did owe the university 548 Marks ($140) in tuition. That was a big chunk of money and was a goodly percentage of the total fees. And a rather remorseful letter from Carl's dad suggests that he realized the presence of his girlfriend, and their daughter was not pleasant for young Carl and his sister. On the other hand the university was known to work out arrangements with students who fell behind in their fees, and you can leave a troublesome domestic situation without traveling across an ocean.

So the story that Carl left Breslau because of his socialist activities is in fact correct. And once in Zurich, he enrolled at the university.

We mentioned that when Carl was in Breslau, he had majored in math and physics. But he had also become interested in what was the emerging high tech field of the time - electricity. Zurich had a three year program for electrical engineers and Carl enrolled in it.

For some reason Carl lasted only one semester. Again he might have had money problems, but a more immediate concern was that his dad wrote that the arrest warrant for Carl had actually been issued. Although Carl was supposedly safe from extradition, Zurich was still too close to Beslau for comfort. So in 1889 and with a Danish friend, Oskar Asmussen, Carl, age 24, headed off for America.

There we hear the new immigrant was almost sent back to Germany. Carl had no money, no job, and when asked if he spoke English he could only reply "A few". But the intervention of Oskar - who spoke excellent English, was well dressed, and flashed a roll of greenbacks - got Carl past the officials.

Actually Carl had money - he left Europe with 2000 Swiss francs (about $300) and he traveled in steerage - which cost almost nothing. However, it is true that when he arrived, he looked pretty bad - virtually all of his teeth were rotten and his face was swollen. He also had no job lined up. So it is very possible Oskar did intervene to help Carl get through.

At first Carl figured he'd stay in America for a couple of years and let the problems in Breslau blow over. But once in America, Carl liked what he saw. In Germany, you had to get permission to travel from town to town. But in America you could go where you wanted and when you wanted. Goods were cheap and pay was good. So Carl learned English and began studying for his US citizenship which he received a few years later. And he adopted an Americanized name, Charles Proteus Steinmetz.

It took Charles only three weeks to find a job. He was hired as an assistant draftsman at a firm established in 1864 by George Osterheld and Rudolf Eickemeyer. Originally listed as machinists in Yonkers, George and Rudolf started out making and fixing machines for the hat-making industry which was Yonker's biggest business at the time.

When the O & E company started up, machines were mostly powered by steam, animals, or people. But by the 1880's people saw electricity as the way of the future. Telegraphy had long shown that transcontinental grids were practical, and in the bigger cities some streets were now lit up with electrical arcs. By the 1880's those newfangled incandescent lights were even cropping up in the rich folks' homes, and more and more electricity was running the motors of the Industrial Revolution.

So almost as a hobby, Rudolf began to fiddle with electrical equipment (George seems to have dropped out of the business). He set up a research lab, and he soon became a skilled electrical engineer. The company began to build, repair, sell, and invent electrical motors and dynamos (generators).

So how successful was Rudolf in his new avocation? Well, in one of Charles's biographies, you'll read that Rudolf's firm was small, and by the 1890's only had a few paltry patents. So it seems that Rudolf was really just a small-time player.

Actually nothing could be further from the truth. Although his company was nowhere as big as those of George Westinghouse or Thomas Edison, Rudolf held a number of important patents for developments of electric dynamos and motors. Other companies either bought his motors directly or paid royalties to use his patents. One patent alone brought in a cool $30,000 to $40,000 a year. At that time, this was enough dough to provide a family of five with 50 years income.

Rudolf Eickemeyer? A small time player? Not, as Eliza Doolittle said, bloody likely.

Although Charles was hired as a draftsman, Rudolf knew his new employee had a strong background in math and physics and had studied electrical engineering in Zurich. Carl quickly showed his métier.

One problem he tackled was designing alternating current motors for running streetcars. With the tough operating conditions - frequent starts and stops, running outdoors in all kinds of weather, vibration, and ever-changing inclines - Charles had no trivial task.

Fortunately, this was not the era of the isolated inventor - if there ever was such a time. Many inventions came out of industrial firms, and there were professional societies of all kinds. The gregarious Charles liked to attend these meetings and read papers on various topics. He soon became well-known to and impressed the American engineers.

But Charles's first major success was how to fix a problem of alternating current called hysteresis. This is the retention of the magnetism in an electromagnet when the electrical current is removed. In electrical motors, hysteresis results in energy loss and to design a motor for a particular job, you had to know how much energy would be lost. But you couldn't know how much energy would be lost until you built the motor. Catch-22.

Charles was not the first researcher to work out equations for hysteresis. The subject had been studied by the English physicist James Ewing since the early 1880's, and James had worked out mathematical relations for the phenomenon. But the equations were too complicated for engineers to use for specific materials and engine designs.

What Charles did was to take the math from the physicists and make it suitable for the 19th century engineers. What he did was to fit the experimental data to a fairly simple equation by the method of least squares. Charles's "law", if not exactly true, was at least true enough that the engineers could design their engines beforehand. Charles presented a paper on his equation at a scientific meeting in 1892. The paper became an instant classic, and Charles became a celebrity.

Not Business as Usual

The changes of the late 19th century not only included advances in technology but also in business methods used to finance and implement the technology. Businesses in the late 19th century were undergoing merger-mania, and the electrical business was no exception. Originally composed of a number of small independent companies, the industry had for all practical purposes gelled into two megalithic corporations. One was run by George Westinghouse - the inventor of the railroad air brake - and the other was headed by Thomas Alva Edison.

That is it was headed by Tom.

By the time Charles came to America, Tom's company, Edison General Electric, had itself been scarfing up a number of firms. But the mergers had not been easy. The trouble was Tom had championed direct current - called DC - although everyone knew that with DC you'd have to build power plants no more than a mile or two from where you needed the electricity. On the other hand, alternating current (AC) could be generated at relatively low voltage and then "stepped up" to be sent hundreds of miles with little loss of power. Then you could step the voltage back down to provide 110 voltage power for homes and businesses.

Tom, though, was a stubborn cuss and kept pushing DC and wouldn't admit he was wrong. But Big Business needed Big Money, and Big Money came from the Big Boys with the Big Money. And the Big Boys with the Big Money sat on the Big Boards of the Big Directors. So the intractable Tom got the boot. He went back to Menlo Park, and Edison General Electric became just good old General Electric, or as we call it today, GE.

Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison
A Stubborn Cuss

Soon after Charles presented his paper on hysteresis, GE offered him a job. Naturally, Charles was happy to accept.

But Rudolf, we hear, objected. He didn't want to lose Charles, and Charles felt loyalty to his employer - certainly a ridiculous attitude by today's standards. So GE had to buy Rudolf's entire company just to get Charles. In 1893, both Rudolf and Charles became GE employees.

Alas, once more this story is not exactly what happened.

GE's strategy was to buy up smaller firms to corner the market on AC devices. Naturally they wanted Rudolph's patents. So they would have grabbed up Rudolph's firm in any case, Charles or no Charles. But they certainly saw Charles as an asset.

Not so for Rudolf. As in most mergers there was "redundancy" and Rudolf took semi-retirement - which from what we read was pretty much full retirement. He lived for two more years and died in 1895 age 63.

At first, Charles worked at the GE facilities in Lynn, Massachusetts. The next year, 1893, he moved to Schenectady in mid-state New York where GE was building not only new manufacturing facilities, but also a corporate research laboratory.

Charles tells us that at GE he could come in when he wanted, work where he wanted, and do what he wanted. That, though, was being a bit hyperbolic. It is true that when he had established himself as one of GE's most valuable employees, Charles had a flexible schedule. But at first he had to come in and work like everyone else.

There were day-to-day problems that cropped up, but Charles also worked on longer term projects. Among his more significant assignments was developing and improving three phase generators. But what was strange was that while doing this work, Charles had redefined multiphase systems. Instead of classifications in terms of the phase differences of the individual voltages and currents (which is the normal way to do it), he define the systems in terms of power output. No one really knows why he did this, but knowledgeable engineers think Charles and GE were having trouble with the patents of Nikola Tesla.

Now we have to be honest and say it's very difficult to separate what Nikola did with what he said he did. If you read his interviews in his later years - when Nikola was living alone in a New York hotel and having his debts paid off by Westinghouse - Nikola says that if there was an invention or discovery - be it X-rays, radio, radar, remote control, the discovery of alien life, or the Star Trek transporter - he, Nikola, did it first.

We don't think Nikola invented all those things - and some people think Nikola was a windbag - but he did design new types of polyphase dynamos and motors. In particular, Westinghouse bought up Nikola's patents so they could install polyphase dynamos at Niagara Falls.

That Nikola was the first engineer to design polyphase generators - as he claimed - may not be correct. But he was certainly one of the first. So it was hard for other companies to build efficient motors and generators without infringing Nikola's patents. But by redefining polyphase electricity in terms of power output, Charles - and GE - might have been able to muddy the waters and "get around" the patents. Whether such linguistic tactics are successful depends on exactly how the original patents are worded and what is actually stated in the itemized claims. And of course, how the patent courts rule.

For what it's worth, changing the definition of polyphase electricity didn't affect the validity of Nikola's patents. But the attendant publicity of the Niagara Falls power plant - not to mention a love for the spotlight - elevated Nikola to international celebrity. As the new millennium rolled in, in the mind of the public there were three technological titans: Nikola Tesla, Tom Edison, and Charles Proteus Steinmetz.

Unlike Nikola or Tom, Charles's forte was math and theory (Nikola's grasp of electromagnetic theory was actually quite poor). So GE assigned Charles to the Calculating Department. He was soon promoted to the department head, and then he became the chief consulting engineer for the company. As the top engineer, he was pretty much able to work on what he wanted.

However, here is where events in Charles's career get a bit muddy. One famous book states that Charles was an outstanding engineer, yes, but a rotten administrator. It soon became clear to GE that they had to put someone else in charge of the department. That's when they made Charles the consulting engineer. We read he was soon receiving the munificent salary of $100,000 a year.

Remember, that's what we read.

We know that Charles became professor of electrical engineering at the Schenectady's Union College in 1902. Naturally, his academic duties took a good part of his time. He also was now doing a lot of work at home - where he had his own laboratory - or at his get-away cabin on the Mohawk River. He liked nothing better than to load up a bunch of papers in a canoe and head out on the river working on electrical problems. According to one story from the early 1920's, Charles was not even on GE's payroll and received compensation for expenses but nothing more.

Actually, the topic is scarcely worth much debate. Charles worked in a day when the bookkeepers didn't have to distinguish between full-time employees who today - or at least not too long ago - would receive benefits or retirement deductions, and consultants who had to manage taxes and deductions on their own. This was a time before withholding - and in fact, there was no income tax at all. So trying to distinguish between Charles as a full-time employee or as a consultant on an open-ended permanent retainer is pretty much pointless.

As far as his pay, neither the humongous salary mentioned or the minimalist non-salary appears to be correct. When Charles started off at GE, he made $2500 a year - twice what Rudolf paid him and about three times the national average. By 1911, Charles's was making $18,000 a year. This was very good pay. For comparison, in 1911, the vice-president of the United States only made $15,000 a year.

Now we won't say Charles was a great manager, but the problems in the Calculating Department were not always his fault. Originally the Calculating Department did the designs for the other divisions. So if you wanted diagrams for your system you had wait for Charles.

But as GE grew so did the work load. Eventually the Calculating Department became a bottleneck, and people began complaining that they were having to wait too long to get their designs so they could do their work. Eventually the departments themselves began to make their own diagrams and had their own engineers check the calculations. So the Calculating Department shrank accordingly. To keep Charles as an employee, he was made chief consulting engineer.

We mentioned that starting in 1902 Charles was appointed professor at Union College. Charles by all accounts was popular with the students even though his lectures were largely incomprehensible. Charles realized even good students had trouble following his lessons and he would sometimes give the students the questions on his tests in advance. But even with Charles's duties at Union he kept working at GE.

Alternate Duties

Charles is known for making major advances in three areas: understanding hysteresis, fixing problems caused by intermittent disruptions on electrical systems (such as caused by lightning), and developing the mathematics describing alternating current.

Today if you crack a beginning text of elementary electricity, alternating current seems simple. The voltage and current follow a sine wave. The current and voltage goes one way and then another and both switch direction about 60 times a second. It seems pretty simple, so what's the big deal about describing it?

First, let's remember. Neither Charles nor his contemporary Nikola Tesla invented alternating current. It was around before either men had been born.

Nikola Tesla

Nikola Tesla
He didn't invent it either.

One thing Charles possessed that was not that common in electrical professionals of the time was a strong grasp of advanced mathematics. So he was able to recognize mathematical relationships in the behavior of electrical systems that a lot of people missed.

But Charles was also an engineer and he knew that engineering math was designed to be useful - and in a day before computers that meant it had to be fairly simple.

Charles knew that alternating current could be described using sines and cosines. But it turns out that the waveforms can be represented more simply using "imaginary numbers" - today more often called complex numbers, since they are no more imaginary than any other numbers. What makes the numbers imaginary (or complex) is that they are defined in terms of the "imaginary number" √-1. But representing waveforms using the complex numbers - as an exponential - is actually simpler than the sine and cosine representation in that two terms are compressed into one.

eix = sin(x) + icos(x)

Surprisingly, this does indeed simplify the math. If you want multiply a waveform by itself using the exponential, it simply doubles the exponential term.

(eix)2 = eix × eix = e2ix

But the multiplication is more cumbersome using sines and cosines:

[sin(x) + icos(x)]2      =      sin(x) × sin(x) + sin(x) × icos(x) + icos(x) × sin(x) + icos(x) × icos(x)

This was a simple example. So imagine the difficulty when you are creating circuits with inductors and capacitors and such stuff. The math becomes quite tiresome. But using complex numbers the algebra is easier.

Of course, we shouldn't belittle direct current. In fact, with the advent of mobile devices and electric automobiles, the venerable DC systems have enjoyed a resurgence of sorts. If you want to read about the earliest creation of direct current just click here.

Social Politics

When Charles moved to Schenectady, he roomed with a fellow employee, Ernst Berg. Later Ernst brother, Eskil, joined them and they moved into a rented house on Wendell Street. They dubbed the house "Liberty Hall", and later Charles had a larger house built on the site and he kept the name.

Charles also built a laboratory and kept a menagerie on the grounds, the latter stocked with crows, Gila monsters, alligators, and black widow spiders. Actually it seems that the Ernst Brothers were the real caretakers of the zoo, either because it was originally their idea or they realized Charles, usually thinking about engineering problems, was not the best zookeeper.

Soon Liberty Hall became the hub of the young bachelors at GE. One of Charles's laboratory assistants was Joseph Le Roy Hayden who had also transferred from Lynn to Schenectady. Joseph took up residence with Charles and the rest. Liberty Hall, though, was not an all male environment. At Charles's invitation Clara - who had become an artist - moved from Germany, and no doubt she helped with the housekeeping.

There are ample photographs of Charles on outings with the fellows. Today of course some people have wondered if there was - ah - "something" - more than just masculine outdoorsy camaraderie involved.

Historians often (we might say always) have trouble preventing contemporary topics from befuddling the interpretation of past events. For instance, some writers have pointed out that Abe Lincoln would share his hotel bed with other circuit riding lawyers. So we know what that means, don't we?

Evidently not. In the 19th century sleeping accommodations at inns and hotels were so at a premium that you often had to double up unless you wanted to sleep on the floor. So Abe's hotel accommodations have nothing to do with his personal preferences.

And in the 1920's, the social lives of men and women were largely separate. This was particularly the case if you weren't married. If anyone got together for mixed-gender activities, they were rigorously chaperoned with the older fuddy-duddies standing by. All-male or all-female organizations, clubs, and yes, outings, were the norm, not the exception.

So Charles's life at Schenectady wasn't all work and no play. He liked having guests over, sometimes for what he called "The Society for the Adjustment of Differences in Wages" or "The Society for the Equalization and Distribution of Wealth" (depending on which book you read). No, that wasn't a socialist club. It was their poker games.

But Charles always remained a steadfast socialist. Today, of course, you'll read that Charles's socialism is a strange variety. He advocated subsidies to the poor but at the same time maintained that free enterprise is needed for a healthy economy. He also worked for one of the largest capitalistic corporations in the world.

So was Charles really an advocate of the discredited philosophy called socialism?

Well, yes. But the point is socialism is not one ideology but a general term to cover a myriad of often mutually exclusive philosophies. People calling themselves socialists have ranged all over the political left, middle, and right, and socialists countries have included dictatorships, monarchies, and republics.

Certainly today socialism has officially fallen from favor to the point that a famous socialist society calls itself as a "think tank" and on their website use the word "socialist" only once and "socialism" not at all. Modern socialistic governments - whether successful or not - are often labeled something else.

In Charles's time, though, socialism was something more than an epithet that politicians hurl at each other when they don't have any real issues to discuss. Up to the second decade of the 20th century, socialism was simply another political philosophy. Shoot, sometimes socialists even got elected!

In fact, from 1911 to 1917, Schenectady had a socialist mayor, George Lunn. All in all the people thought George did OK. He was even re-elected.

We do have to agree with Charles's biographers. Socialism in the late 19th century did not necessarily mean Marxism (actually it still doesn't). It was a political and economic philosophy and - unlike Marxism - did not promote abandonment of traditional religions for dialectical materialism (whatever that is). George had even been a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church.

But 1917 which marked the end of George's tenure as mayor is significant as it is also the date that George quit being a socialist. He switched to being a Democrat. It seems that with the rise of the Bolsheviks, people began to see socialism less as a party advocating better working conditions and fair wages, but as a subversive force working against American values.

Many Americans today are not aware that America entered World War I nearly at the end. While Britain had been fighting the Germans since 1914, America didn't join in until 1917.

In fact, Woodrow Wilson had been elected on a platform of keeping America out of the war. But more and more Americans began to think that even if we stayed out of the conflict, we should make preparations just in case.

However, there was a group of socialists who opposed even preparation for war. One of the most vocal socialist advocating hard-and-fast neutrality was - yes - Charles Steinmetz.

And Charles's stance was so neutral that some people saw him as pro-German. He didn't change his stance even after the Lusitania - today incorrectly thought of by many Americans as an American ship - was sunk on May 7, 1915. There was a hue and cry as the Lusitania was a merchant ship carrying civilian passengers. 128 Americans lost their lives.

Charles didn't waver. He wrote an article - which was not published - where he said that, yes, the Lusitania's sinking had been a horrible atrocity, but the passengers had been knowingly traveling in a war zone. The German Embassy had even run an article that passengers on the ship were sailing at their own risk. Besides, the Lusitania was carrying ammunition, making it a legitimate target of war.

We know today that the cargo of the Lusitania did include munitions. But the arms as listed - several hundred cases of bullets and shrapnel shells and casings - were not the type to necessarily justify a ship to be sunk without warning. The proper procedure would be for the attacking ship or submarine to intercept the ship and order it to heave to. A boarding party would then inspect the cargo. If war matériel was found, the passengers and crew would be evacuated to lifeboats, and the ship could then be seized or sunk.

In a day when modern armies flatten massively populated cities and the leaders express shock! shock! that they killed the very civilians they're trying to liberate, people think it would be impossible to send a boarding party on-board a merchant ship to check if there's any "contraband".

Actually, it's quite possible as the German Captain Count Felix Von Luckner proved when he kept to the protocol rigorously. During the war Felix sunk a number of American and British ships - but without the loss of a single life or injury on either side. Some of the "prisoners" had such a good time on board that they were disappointed when they were released at neutral ports.

We also need to remember that Winston Churchill - the First Lord of the Admiralty - had thrown a monkey wrench - or perhaps we should say an "adjustable spanner" - into the works. He had ordered ships to ignore orders by submarines or ships to halt for inspection. If they did, the captains would be court-martialed (it was war and so merchant captains were subject to military law). Winston also ordered that British merchant ships which were equipped with weapons were to resist and if of sufficient size, they were to ram the subs.

One thing that irritated the Germans was that British ships sometimes flew neutral flags - including the Stars and Stripes. The Germans considered this a violation of the military conventions. There is also clear documentation that Winston wanted neutral ships to come to Britain - and this is a quote - "in the hope especially of embroiling the United States with Germany." So as far as the Germans were concerned Winston had insured that any British ship was a legitimate target of war.

Charles's well-known stance of neutrality (which does indeed come off as pro-German) was well-known to the public and garnered him a lot of static. And yes, we read that Charles was investigated by the FBI - which was hard to do since the FBI didn't exist at that time. But there was the Bureau of Investigation which was a purely investigatory division of the Justice Department, but it didn't become Federal until 1921. BI agents were not armed and had no power of arrest.

The main mover of the investigation wasn't the BI - which seemed to have remarkably little enthusiasm for investigating one of the most celebrated scientists in America. Instead, it was one of Charles's co-workers, Charles Clarke, another high level GE scientist who finked on Charles. Clarke had created his own file on his fellow employee and turned his notes over to the BI. After some investigations, the government finally decided that Charles Steinmetz was no threat to national security. And once America declared War, Charles offered his services to the American government.

Although Charles did not support - and again we quote - "the class-war dogma of Karl Marx" that doesn't mean he didn't hope the Russian "experiment" that began in 1917 would fail. As Charles wrote to - yes - Vladmir Ulyanov (who we know better as Vladmir Lenin):

Dear Mr. Lenin:

Mr. B. V. Losev's return to Russia gives me the opportunity to express to you my admiration of the wonderful work of social and industrial regeneration which Russia is accomplishing under such terrible difficulties. I wish you the fullest success and have every confidence that you will succeed. Indeed, you must succeed, for the great work which Russia has started must not be allowed to fail.

If in technical, and more particularly in electrical engineering matters I can assist Russia in any manner with advice, suggestions or consultation, I shall always be very pleased to do so as far as I am able.

Fraternally yours,

Charles Steinmetz

Vladimir responded in part (he tended to write really long letters.

Dear Dr. Steinmetz: I thank you cordially for your friendly letter of February 16, 1922.

I have seen from these accounts that your sympathies with Soviet Russia have been aroused, on the one hand, by your social and political views. On the other hand, as a representative of electrical engineering, and particularly in one of the technically advanced countries, you have become convinced of the necessity and inevitability of the replacement of capitalism by a new social order, which will establish the planned regulation of economy and ensure the welfare of the entire mass of the people on the basis of the electrification of entire countries.

With very best greetings,

Yours fraternally,


Vladmir Lenin

Mr. Ulyanov
Not Really A Pen Pal

Does this mean that Charles supported the Bolsheviks? It might seem so. But in 1919 an article appeared in American Magazine titled "Bolshevism Won't Get You - But You Have to Watch Out!". Except for a short introduction (and almost certainty the title), the article was penned by Charles.

Charles comes off as decidedly anti-Bolshevik. But he points out that he means Bolshevism as understood in America - "a violent revolutionary movement, especially in industry". But it was, he said, a "symptom of a disease". The disease was the workers "having to live and work under conditions where they do not have a decent standard of living and where they have no opportunity to reach such a standard." Naturally Charles was against such Bolshevism. But it's also clear he was not against socialism as a political philosophy.

Charles was not a mere theorist in politics. He was appointed to the Schenectady Board of Education by Mayor Lunn and even served as its president for several years. He also worked in Mayor Lunn's administration in other capacities. Examples of Charles's "socialist" programs was to build more public parks, constructing new schools, and providing textbooks for the kids in the schools. On speaking tours around the country, Charles advocated preserving natural resources.

Sheesh! What a radical!

Of course, textbooks, new schools, and parks take money. But there was money available as the legacy of the Gilded Age was still being felt. There was a small elite who with their inherited wealth and paying for a Civil War substitutes made them even richer. These men (and they were all men) ended up as the major industrial moguls who populated their factories with poorly paid workers with minimal or non-existent benefits. Surely, they could fork over a part of their ill-gotten gains for those whose pappies weren't themselves industrial moguls.

Charles did not see free enterprise and socialism as incompatible. In fact, you can argue the emerging modern corporations like GE were essentially socialist societies in miniature. Even past the mid-20th century, the corporate plan was to provide employees stable jobs (often for life), good pay, subsidized cafeterias, and health care - often having physicians on staff who would even give free physicals. Some companies provided tuition for employees wanting to attend college. Even if companies relocated they would give all workers, no matter how low down on the rung, the option of moving to the new site. Such programs and policies built a strong sense of loyalty to the company even among the rank and file.

At Schenectady, GE had made a number of improvements for their workers. The work day was ten hours - not bad for the time - and wages were significantly higher than the average. There was a subsidized cafeteria for the workers - a perk that was common well into the 1980's - and workers who had to stay at their jobs had their meals brought to them.

In fact, Charles believed that the rise of the corporation would indeed lead naturally to socialism in government. The government could then assume more of the social responsibility for its citizens. This actually seemed to be happening for much of the 20th century.

The problem, of course, is what do you do when your policy of helping the poor actually succeeds? Well, the former poor become not only middle class but even well-to-do. Suddenly the people who voted for your party to help the poor are now expected to help the poor.

Huh! Forget that stuff. So the former poor now vote for the parties who believed money spent for better workers' pay, health care, benefits, and pensions, would be better used for executive pay, executive health care, executive benefits, and executive pensions.

That has succeeded.

Later Years

In 1903, Joseph left Liberty Hall to marry Corinne Rost. Charles, now living by himself, soon invited the couple to move back in. After all, the house was quite large, and after some hesitation, Corinne agreed.

We also read that Charles adopted Joseph as his son - which seems strange to us although adoption of grown males is not unusual in some other countries. But since Charles was the third generation to suffer from his particular handicaps, he had decided not to marry. So adopting Joseph gave Charles a family.

However, one recent author said that Charles "claimed" he adopted his young protegé, and an article written as long ago as 1919 - when Charles was still alive - said Charles "considered" Joseph his adopted son. In the 1940 census, Joseph listed his surname as Hayden, as did his children.

So was this story of adoption just an anecdote? It might seem so.

But ...

Research by some relatives of Joseph is very interesting. They list the date of the adoption as 1920. This is many years after the birth of Joseph Jr., the Hayden's first son, which is the time of the adoption at least implied in one of Charles's biographies.

So what's going on?

A possibility - speculative but reasonable - is that Charles, Joseph, Corinne, and the kids always thought of themselves as one family but saw no real need to formalize the arrangement. So the 1919 article would have been quite correct that Charles "considered" the Hayden's as his family.

But Charles was not getting any younger. Perhaps he realized that it would be best for all regarding the management and inheritance of his estate if he and Joseph were legally father and son. Hence the late date of 1920.

But whether this is what happened or not, Charles was definitely part of the Hayden family. To the kids Charles was their granddad and Joseph and Corinne's #1 son wrote his name as "Joseph Steinmetz Hayden". The #2 child, Marjorie (called "Midge" by her friends), lived until 2006 and a robust 97 years. She worked at GE as one of the early computer programmers and was quite the accomplished golfer.

Corrine died in the 1920's and at least one of the kids continued to live in the house past 1930. But the residence was finally torn down, and the lot is now part of a tree covered landscape next to the Unitarian Universalist Society of Schenectady. Joseph, Sr., married a lady name Mae, and they moved to a new house a couple of miles away. Joseph himself died in 1951, 69 years old.

A problem with studying Charles's life is that hard and fast documentation beyond technical writings, publications, and articles are few and far between. One historian found it difficult to determine if a tale had really happened of if it had been written specifically for developing the positive image of Schenectady a great place to live and how GE provided a free hand to one of the greatest scientific geniuses of all time. There are plenty of anecdotes, popular magazine articles, and books about Charles for the kids, but few letters, diaries, or personal documents.

Charles died at his home in Schenectady at age 58 on October 26, 1923 exactly 42 years after a most interesting event. His demise may have been partly hastened by an exhausting trip out West which was part business and part vacation with his family. On the other hand, Charles had developed heart problems and he was a constant cigar smoker - you'll rarely see a photograph of him without his stogie. And we know smoking isn't great for longevity. Still at that time, 58 years was not that far from the norm.



Steinmetz: Engineer and Socialist, Ronald Kline, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992. The original price was $39.95. Although it's out of print (you can't buy it from JH Press), you can find used copies a bit cheaper. By far the best book about Charles.

You'll read on various internet sites that this book says that Charles left Germany primarily because of debt and family problems. That is not what this book says. Although Charles's home life was perhaps strained and yes, Carl was in debt to the university, it is clear that his fear of arrest was by far the primary reason for his move to Zurich.

The Man Who Tamed Lightning/The Electrical Genius of Liberty Hall, Floyd Miller, Scholastic Book Services/McGraw Hill, 1966, 1962. The original cover price was 35¢. Used copies seem to start at a few bucks.

The Life of Charles Proteus Steinmetz, Jonathan Leonard, Doubleday, 1929.

Charles Proteus Steinmetz: A Biography, John Hammond, The Century Co., 1924.

Magician of Science: The Boys' Life of Steinmetz, John Hammond, The Century Co., 1926.

"Steinmetz, Charles P(roteus) [Carl August Rudolf], Peter Eisenstadt (Editor), Laura Eve-Moss (Managing Editor), The Encyclopedia of New York State, Syracuse University Press, 2007.

Busy Buddies, Cast: Jerry Howard, Moe Howard, Larry Fine, Vernon Dent, Victor Travers, Fred Kelsey, John Tyrrell; Writers: Del Lord and Elwood Ullman; Director: Del Lord; Producer: Hugh McCollum; Columbia Pictures, 1944. A good reference site for information on the Stooges and their films is

Rudolph Eickemeyer", Charles Proteus Steinmetz, The Electrical World, Vol. 25, No. 11, pp. 331-332, 1895.

"Charles Proteus Steinmetz", Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography, Charles Schribner's Sons, 2008

How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie, Simon and Schuster, 1936.

"Charles Steinmetz: Union's Electrical Wizard", Union College Magazine, 1998.

General Lectures on Electrical Engineering, Charles Proteus Steinmetz, Robinson and Ardee, 1908.

"Off Goes the Power Current Started by Thomas Edison", Jennifer Lee, The New York Times, November 14, 2007.

"Marjorie 'Midge' Hayden", Albany Times Union, January 26, 2006.

"The Steinmetz Connection", Robert Mead,, February 13, 2017.

"Electrical Fountain to Honor GE's Steinmetz", Schenectady Gazette, July 13, 1948.

"Steinmetz Worked for His Expenses", St. Petersburg Times, October 27, 1923.

"Secret, Prying Eyes Were On the 'Wizard'", Paul Grondahl, Times Union, October 23, 2013.

The Theory of Gambling and Statistical Logic, Richard Epstein, Academic Press, 2014.

Electric City: General Electric in Schenectady, Julia Kirk Blackwelder, Texas A&M Press, 2014.

"The Bolshevists Won't Get You - But you've Got to Watch Out!", The American Magazine, Vol. 87, pp. 9-11, 132-135, 1919.

"Hayden, Joseph Le Roy", Brasfield Geneologies, Mentions 1920 as the year Charles adopted Joseph.

"Using Complex Numbers in Circuit Analysis and Review of the Algebra of Complex Numbers ", Robert P. Johnson, Practical Electronics, University of California at Santa Cruz, 2014.