Electronic Design

The Man Outside The Lab

Born a cripple in Breslau, Germany (now Poland) on April 9, 1865, Charles Proteus Steinmetz never married for fear his children would be deformed as he and as his father were. But he loved children, so he adopted a young engineer whose subsequent family made him a beloved grandfather. This love of children subsequently expanded to include many more children in Schenectady, N.Y. At Christmas, for example, Steinmetz gave every orphan in Schenectady a present.

The U.S. almost forfeited his technological, educational, and charitable work, though. When he sought to enter the U.S. from Switzerland in July 1889, an Ellis Island custom official questioned his qualifications to be a valued citizen because of his deformities and his finances. Only through the quick thinking of his friend Oscar Asmussen, who vouched for him financially and offered to be his sponsor, did the customs official relent.

Despite his many innovations, Steinmetz wasn’t all work. He loved plants, animals, and playing cards. He even formed a poker club, humorously called "The Society for the Adjustment of Salaries."

Pet crows, raccoons, squirrels, cranes, a monkey, and dogs filled his house. He raised orchids, cacti, and many unusual plants. Still, he couldn’t get away from finding ways to improve things and used his home conservatory, supported by General Electric, to experiment with the effects of lighting and synthetic fertilizers on plant growth.

Long-before today’s workaholics were dragging their laptops on vacations, Steinmetz figured out a way to combine his love of nature with his drive to understand electrical engineering. At his campsite on the Mohawk River, he often worked in his canoe. A board stretched from gunwale to gunwale as the desk, and the short Steinmetz would kneel on a cushion while working mathematical calculations.

Finally, no article on Steinmetz would be complete without mention of his appreciation of Blackstone panetella cigars. He loved them so much, when GE planned to eliminate smoking at its labs, he threatened to leave! The rule wasn’t enforced.

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