Edison and the Hunchback of Notre Dorp

 

-by Edwin D. Reilly, Jr.
 For the Sunday Gazette


                                                   

 

                     “When [Edison] was twelve, he needed money to buy books and chemicals; he got a

                       concession on the daily train from Detroit to Port Huron. In Detroit there was a public

                       library and he read it.”

                       .

                       .

                      “Steinmetz was the most valuable piece of apparatus that General Electric had—

                       until he wore out and died.”

                                                                                                     John Dos Passos, “The 42nd Parallel”

                        

      The two best-known Schenectadians today are undoubtedly Pat Riley, whose teams won five NBA championships, and the director John Sayles, whose “Silver City” just played to an SRO crowd at Proctor’s. But there was a time in the 1920s when there walked the streets of Old Dorp an émigré hunchback who was one of the ten best known persons alive. That would be one Charles Proteus Steinmetz, the electrical wizard who, along with the inventor-entrepreneur Thomas Edison, had captured the imagination of the world.

    Edison’s fame and legacy endures, and the seminal Steinmetz textbooks that are the basis for modern electrical engineering are still being 
reprinted and referenced. One of them is among my most prized possessions. Late historian Larry Hart did his best to keep the memory of Steinmetz
alive locally, and the Schenectady Museum continues to do so through its exhibits. But I fear that nationally, Steinmetz recognition has faded
considerably over the last half-century, and that is to our great shame.
 
The supporting cast
 
          For those that know and cherish them, there are an endless number of stories about the exploits of other GE engineers too.
 Ernst Alexanderson, for example, is often called “the father of radio and television.” No other county in the country is home
to
so many patent holders per capita. Long before there was a Silicon Valley, our part of the Mohawk Valley was the original Tech
Valley. That name is now being appropriated by those in the Hudson Valley for what their scientists hope to accomplish in the
future. The proper name should be Tech Valleys, plural, so as to add to that hope the recognition of what has already been and
is continuing to be accomplished
here.

      Steinmetz is renowned not only for his achievements as an electrical engineer and his founding of the EE department at Union College, but also for his service on the Schenectady School Board and the Schenectady City Council. In the former capacity, he led the effort to build eight new schools and renovate four more. In the latter, he worked with Mayor George Lunn, a fellow socialist, to acquire the land for Central Park. These great men achieved what they did not because they were socialists, but because they were disciplined, determined people of incredible perseverance. Steinmetz, in particular, believed in a variant strain of socialism, one that embraced the economic and societal value of the large American corporation. He was proud of his employer, General Electric, which paid him well, gave him great freedom to pursue his research, and did not really deserve the cynicism of the Dos Passos quote. We should be proud that Mayor Brian Stratton has brought the GE monument back to City Hall.

 

What we could do

 

            There is no other location that houses as much historical material on Steinmetz as does Schenectady. There are Steinmetz documents and memorabilia at Union College, the Schenectady County Historical Society (www.schist.org), the Schenectady Museum (www.schenectadymuseum.org), the Efner Research Library on the top floor of City Hall (www.schenectadyhistory.org/efner.html), and, soon, at the Edison Exploratorium (www.edisonexploratorium.org).

            But what and where is this “Edison Exploratorium”? Its seed is there now at the Canal Supply Company—Thurston Sack, Proprietor—in the former Gazette Press Building on north Broadway. Nearby is the historical marker on State Street that notes that Edison first came here in 1886. That was a mere ten years after Union College awarded him an honorary doctorate, an event that may well have paved the way for GE’s presence in Schenectady.

When it is open to the public, the Exploratorium will be a  temporary repository of historic GE artifacts until the much larger downtown quarters that they deserve materializes. Thurston’s dream, and also that of prolific engineer and inventor John Harnden and former WRGB executive Jim Delmonico, is that the Exploratorium be not just a museum, but also a place that will introduce our young people to the wonders of science and attract national and international engineering conferees who will fill existing hotels, and a new one, to overflowing. The Exploratorium would thus be added to the Museum, the Empire StateAerosciences Museum, Proctor’s, Union College, and the Historical Society’s Mabee Farm Historic Site as the principal tourist attractions of our county. What is needed to accomplish this is the wholehearted cooperation of GE, the Historical Society, our existing museums, Union College, and the city, county, and state governments. Given that, raising the needed funds should be the easy part.

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The human side of Steinmetz

 

            At the peak of his fame and productivity, Steinmetz build a magnificent home at 1297 Wendell Avenue that included a greenhouse, a laboratory, and an indoor swimming pool. If it were standing today, it would itself be our primary tourist attraction. After Steinmetz’s death in 1923, former President Herbert Hoover, himself an engineer, headed a committee to raise $25,000 to purchase the house and convert it into a museum. The money was raised but the city and state could not agree on the responsibility for restoring it. Its demolition in 1938 is the single greatest black mark on our history.

            Steinmetz had also built a small summer cabin in West Glenville where Viele Creek once emptied into the Mohawk. That too is gone, having been moved to the Greenfield Village Museum in Dearborn, Michigan by Henry Ford in 1935. But that blow might still be assuaged. As an officer of the Historical Society, I have written to Dearborn and asked for the cabin back. If that happens, the Exploratorium leaders have found a suitable site for it very close to the original one, but one that will have adequate parking and an accessible dock from which excursions could easily be made to the Mabee Farm a bit further west on the other side of the river.

            Thomas Edison built his company in Schenectady, but was only an occasional visitor. But Steinmetz lived and worked here among our parents and grandparents. According to his biographers, Steinmetz was a loving, caring person about whom there is only one recorded incident of his raising his voice (to issue a well-deserved reprimand). He was a person of steadfast character and indomitable courage from cradle to grave. One day he was walking with a financier in New York. As they passed a synagogue, the man looked up and said “I used to be a Jew.” To which Steinmetz quietly replied “I used to be a hunchback.”

 

Edwin D. Reilly, Jr. lives in Niskayuna and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Gazette op ed page.