Union Notables

Charles Proteus Steinmetz    Union faculty, 1902 - 1923

Charles Steinmetz. Unknown artist, n.d., hand tinted photograph, courtesy of Union College Permanent Collection

Electrical engineer, inventor, and educator, Charles Proteus Steinmetz was born Carl August Steinmetz in Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland) in 1865. In 1883 Steinmetz enrolled at the University of Breslau to study mathematics. True to his philosophy of education, he pursued an unusually broad course of studies, including astronomy, biology, chemistry, electricity, physics, and political economy. Steinmetz was also attracted to socialism, leaning toward the tenets of that doctrine that emphasized peaceful change and the foundation of cooperative communities. “Cooperation” became the central theme of a lifelong intellectual quest for the ideal political system.

Steinmetz fled Germany in 1888 when he came under police suspicion for editing a socialist newspaper at a time when socialism was illegal. He arrived in New York City in 1889, speaking no English, with $10 in his pocket and no job. He soon found work in New York City and there made his first major contribution to electrical engineering, developing the law of hysteresis. Eventually employed by the General Electric Company in 1892, and relocating to Schenectady in 1894, Steinmetz remained with General Electric until his death in 1923. Early in his career Steinmetz made two other major contributions to electrical engineering: the application of imaginary number calculations to the solution of electrical engineering problems, and the theory of transient phenomena and oscillations. Awarded honorary degrees by both Harvard University and Union College, Steinmetz was for two generations, a_er Edison, the most recognized name in the realm of electricity. He became Professor of Electrical Engineering at Union College in 1902, as well as Chairman of the Electrical Engineering Department in 1905. After World War I, Steinmetz ceased lecturing at Union College, though he remained a nominal member of the faculty and a warm and active friend of the College for the remainder of his life. Steinmetz wrote that “Teaching is the most important profession, because upon teachers depends the future of our nation, and, in fact, all civilization.”

Steinmetz was unusually short in stature and suffered from kyphosis, an abnormal curvature of the spine, both of which he inherited from his father. Although this restricted his physical activity, it did not prevent him from enjoying canoeing, swimming, biking, and other outdoor pursuits, which he loved and engaged in throughout his life. He was also an avid photographer, with a great love of trick photography. He experimented with multiple exposures and layered negatives, creating images, for example, in which he contrived to be present multiple times.

In addition to publishing numerous technical papers, lectures, and books, Steinmetz interpreted Einstein’s ideas to the public, spoke favorably of the prospects for extraterrestrial life, ran strongly but unsuccessfully for New York State Engineer on the Socialist ticket, and started the Steinmetz Electric Car Company in 1917. He continued an active schedule of lecturing throughout his life. Following an exhausting lecture tour to the west coast, Steinmetz became ill suddenly, and died at home in Schenectady on October 26, 1923.