Saturday, July 08, 2006


The name of the electrical engineer (EE) Charles Proteus Steinmetz (1865-1923) is known from the same time period as that of Thomas Edison (1847-1931), but the two represent entirely different intellectual directions. While Edison was a crude but persistent experimenter, Steinmetz was scientifically well trained with excellent mathematical skills. From a different point of view, Steinmetz's Unitarian minister, Ernest Caldecott, wrote of him "He saw how religious ideas had developed and he had great respect for them. But he held to none of them himself." Caldecott adds an intriguing footnote: "However, Steinmetz was not opposed to his own understanding of what he called 'true Christianity.'" What was he doing in a Unitarian congregation?

Let us start by going back to who Steinmetz was. When I moved to Los Angeles, I briefly stayed with my uncle, an EE specializing in instrumentation, and my aunt. One day I picked off his technical bookshelf a book on engineering mathematics by Philip Alger. Although little of the material was new to me, I found it unusually lucid. Soon I saw that it was a revision of a book by Steinmetz, written for the electrical engineering profession and General Electric Corporation, for which he worked. Indeed, it was one of twelve such books that Steinmetz wrote to embody the results of his work on alternating current electrical circuits, of which EE Ronald Scott has written that "since that time [1897] no one has had any excuse for not understanding AC circuits."

Steinmetz was born in 1865 in the city of Breslau in eastern Prussia, which can be understood to be the part of western Poland that was then in German hands. Although this sounds obscure, it can be viewed in a different way. During Steinmetz's lifetime, the German scientists Richard Courant and his classmate Wolfgang Sternberg, Ernst Hellinger, Otto Toeplitz, Heinz Hopf, Max Born, Otto Stern, and Erich Hecke, came out of the schools of Breslau. Something special happened in them. Steinmetz studied in a classical gymnasium (advanced high school). He learned Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Polish, and French, with their literatures, philosophy, and mathematics, and received unique recognition for his scholarship on his graduation from the gymnasium in 1882. One gymnasium instructor, Fechner, particularly instilled into him the concept of what science meant. Although some sources state that the background of the Steinmetz family was Jewish, by that time the family had converted to Lutheranism, and Steinmetz submitted to a confirmation ceremony, from which he later recalled the words of the pastor: "You may find that as you pursue your university studies, you will have no use for religion in your own lives. Still, you should not forget that ignorant people need it; therefore everyone should respect and preserve religion, since it is necessary to a certain extent." Perhaps religion has had few such striking condemnations.

At the University of Breslau, Steinmetz aimed to become an engineer, and studied basic science, physics, chemistry, and applicable mathematics, with which he had a special intoxication. The student mathematical society was his introduction to student fellowship, and he received the nickname Proteus, which he later adopted as his legal middle name, for his intellectual versatility. He was outstanding in the classes of the mathematician Schroeter and of the astronomer Galle (the discoverer of the planet Neptune). He progressed intellectually, and in graduate school in Breslau he became involved in a socialist group, with the result that eventually he had to flee from Prussia with a finished mathematical doctoral dissertation but without having received the corresponding doctoral degree. After a short stay in Switzerland, in 1889 he took ship to America with a Danish friend whom he met in Zurich. He established himself as an EE working with the German immigrant Rudolf Eickemeyer in Yonkers, learning to deal with the design of electric motors at a time when the underlying scientific concepts were hardly known. The General Electric Company was formed in 1892. It acquired Eickemeyer's company in 1893, with Steinmetz, who eventually moved to upper NY state to become the greatest scientific figure of the company. Its administrators gradually came to an enlightened understanding of how to use research engineers such as Steinmetz. He had a glorious career there in which his position was less that of industrial engineer than consultant and resident scientific guru. He held some 200 patents at the time of his death, and had about 260 journal publications. He was honored by president Theodore Roosevelt as America's greatest electrical engineer.

But also picture Steinmetz as a hunchbacked cripple, with awkward spoken English. Like Handel and Joseph Fourier, he never married and had no sexual relations, not wishing to propagate the deformity that he shared with his father. This separateness was in addition to the isolation which is inevitable for those whose knowledge and ability exceed those of others in their working and personal environment. But he could not bear to live alone, and occasionally would invite young engineers to share his home. One to whom he became close was Roy Hayden. When Hayden eventually marrried, Steinmetz became close to his family, who eventually introduced him to the young minister of the All Souls Unitarian Church of Schenectady, Ernest Caldecott. This inaugurated a running dialogue between the two men on the relations between science and religious belief. Caldecott himself must deserve much credit: at times a sleepless Steinmetz would telephone him at night, and then Caldecott would visit him at home and the two would talk until late. Steinmetz reciprocated in terms of generosity to the church. Steinmetz eventually would sing in the choir and gave sermons in Caldecott's church, and formulated his views on religious and social issues in a number of magazine articles and one book. Some of these publications together with extracts from longer works were published after his death by Caldecott and the engineer Philip Alger in a book entitled Steinmetz the Philosopher (1965). Caldecott saw Steinmetz as not only a research engineer but also as a sociologist, whose progressive social views were the real continuation of his youthful socialism. He also saw him as an agnostic, and saw rumors of a turn to conventional religion by Steinmetz as inaccurate, writing "If Steinmetz had turned to prayer, his minister would have known it." Steinmetz to him was "an all-around thinker", with "a deep and abiding concern for the social good." Although "somewhat left of center" politically, he was pragmatic, not doctrinarian, with a wonderful sense of humor which included at times the infliction on visitors of practical jokes, often based on electricity.

Caldecott must have been an effective pastor, who could break through Steinmetz's isolation and establish a link which made it possible for Steinmetz to be as human as he could be in the context of the Schenectady church, and to bring out aspects of his humanity for which there was no place in his technical role. Caldecott seems to have been largely responsible for the airing of Steinmetz's views on religion, although he disagreed with them. As a pastor, rather than playing on Steinmetz's weaknesses, he developed and made visible his strengths. So be it.


LaReinaCobre said...

Took me a while to get around to reading this entry, but I'm glad I did. I am sending this one to the bf; he is a scientist and ignostic; I think he'd appreciate it.

I really like examples of people from disparate backgrounds forming relationships and helping each other in life.

LaReinaCobre said...

p.s. You should put this in Wikipedia!

LinguistFriend said...

Thank you for your comments. Steinmetz was a strange man, but he was one of us, as Joseph Conrad wrote of a non-hero of one of his short novels.
There is no good biography of Steinmetz, according to the most recent encyclopedia article I have seen. One would need that to write a good encyclopedia article. I drew mainly on two biographies and Caldecott's comments in the collection, as well as two of
Steinmetz's books on math and circuits that I found in LA.
Best wishes -