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History of the Mohawk Valley: Gateway to the West 1614-1925
Charles Proteus Steinmetz

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[This information is from Vol. IV, pp. 4-6 of History of the Mohawk Valley: Gateway to the West 1614-1925, edited by Nelson Greene (Chicago: The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1925). It is in the Reference collection of the Schenectady County Public Library at R 974.7 G81h. This online edition includes lists of portraits, maps and illustrations. As noted by Paul Keesler in his article, "The Much Maligned Mr. Greene," some information in this book has been superseded by later research or was provided incorrectly by local sources.]

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Portrait of Charles Proteus Steinmetz

Portrait: Charles Proteus Steinmetz

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Charles Proteus Steinmetz, A. M., Ph. D., chief consulting engineer of the General Electric Company, was born in Breslau, Germany, April 9, 1865, the son of Carl Heinrich and Caroline (Neubert) Steinmetz. His paternal grandparents lived in Ostrowo, Poland, his grandfather, Carl Steinmetz being a German and his grandmother a member of the Polish family of Gawenski. Carl Heinrich Steinmetz, one of their three sons, father of Dr. Steinmetz, became a lithographer in Breslau. He married the widow of his eldest brother, Caroline Neubert Steinmetz. She had two daughters by her former marriage, and by her second marriage a son, originally named Carl August Rudolf but christened by the university club to which he belonged Carl (Charles) Proteus, a name which Dr. Steinmetz adopted. The mother died in a cholera epidemic in 1866 and the children were cared for by their grandmother and an aunt from Poland.

At the age of four and one-half years, Carl Steinmetz was sent to kindergarten, which he attended just one day, successfully protesting against returning to it. A year later he entered the elementary school where, strangely enough in view of the fact that he later became one of the world's greatest mathematicians, one of his greatest difficulties was learning the multiplication tables. He subsequently attended the classical gymnasium, and in 1882 entered the University of Breslau. It was there that he was given the name "Proteus" by his college club, it being a custom of the organization to give each member a club name. When later he Americanized his name he retained the appellation bestowed by the club and signed himself Charles P. Steinmetz.

While in the university he became interested in socialism, against which vigorous steps were being taken by the government. Just before he was to receive his degree, an issue of a socialist paper which he was temporarily editing while the editor was imprisoned and which contained several articles by Steinmetz was confiscated. The publication was suspended and the editors and others were arrested and imprisoned to await trial. Not much evidence against Steinmetz was found, but the university authorities were requested to begin proceedings against him, a course they were slow to follow, as he was one of the most promising students, and well liked.

Realizing that his career at the university and later as a professor was threatened by the attitude of the government, he decided to leave Germany. His name had already been included in the lists for arrest and trial. He therefore made a visit to a friend, a clergyman living near the Austrian border. With innocent looking return tickets in his pocket he went on a picnic expedition across the border into Austria and there proceeded to Zurich, Switzerland. There he made a scant living by writing and tutoring, and studied at the Polytechnicum. While at the Polytechnicum he became very friendly with a young American student, and when the latter was called home the two decided to share their fortune. They therefore left for Havre, going by immigrant train, and took steerage passage for America. Arriving in New York, in June, 1889, penniless, able to speak but little English and incidentally with one side of his face badly swollen because of a wind which blew on him through an open port of the ship during the preceding night, the immigration officials hesitated to allow him to enter the country. He was sent to the detention pen, from which the eloquence of his friend, who showed a considerable sum of money which he said was their joint fund, released him.

Two weeks after landing, Steinmetz obtained employment in the manufacturing establishment of Rudolph Eickemeyer at Yonkers, New York, as a draftsman. At that time the company was making a few electric motors and generators, and had just taken up work on the problems of the electric street car, jointly with Stephen D. Field. All the designs for the experiments with the electric cars passed through his hands. Quarters for a laboratory were obtained and Steinmetz began to specialize on magnetic testing. His writings on electrical subjects began to attract attention, his discussion of the law of hysteresis eliciting most interest on the part of electrical engineers. In 1892 the General Electric Company bought the electrical manufacturing business of the Eickemeyer Company except the making of motors for elevators, which the Otis Company took over to its own plant. Steinmetz went to the Lynn Works of the General Electric Company. In January, 1893, he was transferred to the Schenectady Works and thereafter made Schenectady his home. His title in the company was chief consulting engineer.

Dr. Steinmetz took out his first naturalization papers in Yonkers, and returning there in 1894, just five years after his arrival in the United States, to obtain his final citizenship papers, cast his first vote in Schenectady in 1894. In 1912 he was appointed president of the board of education of Schenectady, and in 1915 was elected president of the common council of that city on the socialist ticket. As stated, Dr. Steinmetz had completed his work at the University of Breslau, but had to leave before receiving his degree. Harvard conferred the degree of Master of Arts on him in 1902, President Charles W. Eliot saying "I confer this degree upon you as the foremost electrical engineer in the United States, and therefore the world." In the same year Dr. Steinmetz became professor of electrical engineering at Union College and continued his connection with the college as professor of electrophysics until his demise. He was an honorary member of the Union College chapter of the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity, of the honorary scientific fraternities Sigma Xi and Tau Beta Pi, and of Eta Kappa Nu, engineering fraternities. He was president of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers for the year 1901-1902, of the Illuminating Engineering Society for the year 1915-1916, and of the National Association of Corporation schools in 1915. He had served as vice president of the International Association of Municipal Electricians for several years, was a fellow of the American Association of Electrical Engineers and of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a member of the British Institution of Electrical Engineers and of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

In 1922, Dr. Steinmetz received the nomination for state engineer from th socialist party and received the flattering vote of many democrats and republicans, who voted for him in appreciation of his scientific services rather than as an endorsement of his politics. Dr. Steinmetz never married and lived at 108 Wendell avenue with Mr. and Mrs. J. Leroy Hayden, where his favorite recreation was gardening.

Dr. Steinmetz died at his home in Schenectady, New York, Friday morning, October 26, 1924, of chronic myocarditis. He had been indisposed for several days, following his return from his first visit to the Pacific coast, but death came suddenly. The funeral was held on Monday, October 29, at his home and was made the occasion of solemn, public testimonial to the great achievements of this master electrical engineer of Schenectady.

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