Feb 13, 2017

The Steinmetz Connection...

Steinmetz, in his Detroit Electric, talks to adopted son,
Joseph Leroy Hayden, and his three grandchildren.  My
sister, Ann, married the son of the child on the right of the
running board, Joseph Steinmetz Hayden.
The other morning, Mary Ann and I were watching Mo Rocca's TV show, The Henry Ford's Innovation Nation, when a segment came on describing the Henry Ford Museum's holdings related to the German-born electrical genius Charles Proteus Steinmetz.  I had forgotten that Steinmetz' summer home had been purchased by Henry Ford and is carefully preserved as an exhibit at Greenfield Village, adjacent to the Henry Ford.  I have mentioned Steinmetz before in my blog, here, but there's a family connection to him that I'd like to explain.

Steinmetz, who lived from 1865 until 1923, is described in Wikipedia as, "a German-born American mathematician and electrical engineer and professor at Union College. He fostered the development of alternating current that made possible the expansion of the electric power industry in the United States, formulating mathematical theories for engineers. He made ground-breaking discoveries in the understanding of hysteresis that enabled engineers to design better electromagnetic apparatus equipment including especially electric motors for use in industry." 

He arrived in the United States in 1889, changing his first name to "Charles" in order to sound more American, and selecting "Proteus" as a middle name since he had been nicknamed that as a child.  Proteus was a wise hunchbacked character from the Odyssey who knew many secrets.

Einstein comes to Schenectady
to meet Steinmetz in 1921,
the same year Einstein won the
Nobel Prize in physics.
Shortly after his arrival, he went to work for a firm in Yonkers, New York, that produced electrical transformers.  According to Wikipedia, he "published in the field of magnetic hysteresis, which gave him worldwide professional recognition."  They go on to describe, "Steinmetz's work revolutionized AC circuit theory and analysis, which had been carried out using complicated, time-consuming calculus-based methods.  In the groundbreaking paper, "Complex Quantities and Their Use in Electrical Engineering", presented at a July 1893 meeting published in the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (AIEE), Steinmetz simplified these complicated methods to "a simple problem of algebra".  He systematized the use of complex number phasor representation in electrical engineering education texts, whereby the lower-case letter "j" is used to designate the 90-degree rotation operator in AC system analysis.  His seminal books and many other AIEE papers "taught a whole generation of engineers how to deal with AC phenomena".  In Schenectady, and throughout the engineering world, he became known as an engineering wizard.  One of the highest technical awards given by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, for major contributions to standardization within the field of electrical and electronics engineering, is named in his honor as the IEEE Charles Proteus Steinmetz Award.

Steinmetz and Thomas Edison examine an insulator after
subjecting it to artificial lightning in Steinmetz' lab in 1922.
He became a professor of electrical engineering and later department head at Union College, only a short block from where I grew up.

My family connection relates to Steinmetz' personal life.  According to an article that appeared in Smithsonian Magazine in 2011, "Despite his professional successes, there was emptiness in Steinmetz’s life, which he rectified with a maneuver that helped secure his reputation as the “Bohemian scientist.” He spent his first few years in Schenectady in a “bachelor circle” of GE engineers, hiking, canoeing and experimenting with photography. Steinmetz became close friends with one of lab assistants, a thin, young blond man named Joseph LeRoy Hayden, as they developed the first magnetic arc lamp, later used to light street corners. Hayden began to cook for Steinmetz, and soon had a cot placed in his boss’s laboratory so he could nap during their marathon working hours.  When Hayden announced that he intended to marry and find an apartment nearby, Steinmetz had an idea.

A 1908 postcard showing Steinmetz's home on Wendell Ave.
When I was a child, only the garage on the right remained.  It
still housed his 1914 Detroit Electric automobile.
By the turn of the twentieth century, Steinmetz had started construction on a large house on Wendell Avenue, in the area where GE executives lived.  A collector of rare plants, he had it designed with a greenhouse, as well as a laboratory, where he planned to work as much as possible to avoid going into the office.  Once the mansion was finished, Steinmetz filled the greenhouse with orchids, ferns and cacti (he delighted in their strange shapes) and focused on the menagerie of animals he had always wanted.  Like a mischievous boy, he was fascinated with anything that was lethal, and he gathered alligators, rattlesnakes and black widow spiders.  The inventor Guglielmo Marconi once asked about Steinmetz about his Gila monster.  “He’s dead,” Steinmetz replied.  “He was too lazy to eat.”

Soon, Steinmetz was dining each night in his home with Hayden and his wife, Corrine, a stout, round-faced French-Canadian.  The house was too large for Steinmetz, and the Haydens suspected what might be coming.  Finally, Steinmetz turned to Corinne.

“Why don’t you come and live with me?” he asked.

Joseph Hayden was all for it. It would make their long working hours more convenient, and the house offered space he and Corrine could never afford on their own. Hayden had come to cherish Steinmetz’s eccentricities, and he understood that the Bohemian scientist really yearned for a family of his own. Corrine was reluctant, but Steinmetz gently wore her down.

“If we move in with you,” she eventually told him, “I must run the house as I see fit.”

“Of course, my dear,” Steinmetz replied, stifling a huge grin. Corrine Hayden then outlined the terms of their cohabitation—Steinmetz would pay only for his share of expenditures.   She would prepare and served meals on a regular schedule, no matter how important his and her husband’s work was. The men would simply have to drop everything and sit down to the table. Steinmetz agreed to all of Corrine’s terms.

The living arrangement, despite some awkward starts, soon flourished, especially after the Haydens began to have children—Joe, Midge and Billy—and Steinmetz legally adopted Joseph Hayden as his son.  The Hayden children had a grandfather, “Daddy” Steinmetz, who ensured that they grew up in a household filled with wonder.  Birthday parties included liquids and gasses exploding in Bunsen burners scattered decoratively around the house.  Not much taller than the children who ran about his laboratory and greenhouse, Steinmetz entertained them with stories of dragons and goblins, which he illustrated with fireworks he summoned from various mixtures of sodium and hydrogen in pails of water."

Steinmetz' car, now on display
in the Schenectady Museum
The youngster named Midge was mentioned in my blog post about my Model A station wagon.  The child named Joe in this article was in fact Joseph Steinmetz Hayden, who grew up to establish a successful architectural graphics and copying business in Schenectady, "Hayden Photocopy".  His son, Joseph Steinmetz Hayden, Jr., married my sister, Ann, who passed away in 1965.  So does that make me Steinmetz's step-great-great-grandson(nephew?)-in-law???

As a young child, I knew well the place where Steinmetz had lived.  His old barn was still standing, and when we would venture up to Wendell Avenue on our bicycles, we'd sometimes look into the windows of the barn where his 1914 "Duplex Drive Brougham" Detroit Electric Automobile still resided.  That property eventually became the site of the First Unitarian Society of Schenectady which is now the Unitarian Universalist Society of Schenectady.  The society's home, now on the National Register of Historic Places, is a Modernist Edward Durrell Stone designed building in the GE Realty Plot district of Schenectady.  Although Dr. Steinmetz was a legendary figure in Schenectady as I was growing up, I have found through the years that most people outside of the engineering community have no acquaintance with him or his remarkable accomplishments.
The church that now resides on the site of Steinmetz' residence
Read more: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/charles-proteus-steinmetz-the-wizard-of-schenectady-51912022/#HqAzd6GYx5jgKMMq.99

1 comment:

Sztrogi said...

Great men, great times... thanks a lot for sharing it!