#ThrowbackThursday: The Steinmetz Symposium

Courtesy of Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Last week I shared the story of George Westinghouse and the 1893 World’s Fair.

During the 19th century any person enrolled at a school at any time was considered an alumni.

Even though he was there for less than a term, Westinghouse is still a “Union Man.”

Westinghouse was not the pinnacle of Union innovation.

In fact, tomorrow May 8, the school and all who attend will be able to view the wondrous research being performed by

current students.

Since its first day 25 years ago in 1991, the Steinmetz Symposium boasts hundreds of professor mentored undergraduate research each spring.

The name of the day is in honor and recognition of Charles Proteus Steinmetz.

Steinmetz was a titan of electricity and physics.

Born in Breslau, Germany, Steinmetz was cursed by dwarfism and kyphosis.

His genetic disorders, while they restricted him, did not stop him from achieving truly remarkable accomplishments.

Under the strict eye of the German government, Steinmetz fled the nation in 1888 after being placed under police suspicion for editing a socialist magazine.

He found a new home in Zurich, Switzerland, and enrolled in his first and last engineering course at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.

With only ten dollars to his name, Steinmetz boarded a ship to America, a land where he saw opportunity and hope.

While in America, Steinmetz joined fellow German refugee Rudolf Eickemeyer.

Eickemeyer was involved in the manufacturing of electric motors for street cars and it was as an experimental assistant that Steinmetz made his first contribution to the field of electricity in the form of the law of hysteresis.

In 1892, Eickemeyer’s company was bought by Thomas Houston, who several years earlier joined forces with Thomas Edison to form General Electric.

Steinmetz quickly began to make a name for himself in the company and a few years after being transferred to Schenectady, N.Y., Steinmetz was named the chief consulting engineer of GE.

During his time in Schenectady Steinmetz enjoyed private electrical research, playing poker, pulling pranks, and spending the summers at his camp by the Mohawk River.

His work in the field of electricity and alternating currents made him a celebrity in the science community.

Union President Andrew Van Vranken Raymond saw an opportunity to help bring the college out of what appeared to be a fate of demise.

In 1902, Raymond offered Steinmetz a job at the college and a year later, Steinmetz was awarded an honorary doctorate.

Steinmetz proved to be a great addition to the Union community.

His lectures fueled intellectual progress on campus and almost every student loved the cigar smoking professor.

As one student recalled, “Steinmetz was generosity itself.”

Along with Steinmetz, Union has a proud tradition of creating the world’s innovators.

Squire Whipple, class of 1830, is considered by many to be the “father of American metal bridges.”

His patented Whipple truss and bowstring arch truss bridges were used all acorss the nation where bridges were being built.

Stuart Perry, class of 1837, held several patents for gas engines (which can be seen at the Museum of American History).

A classmate of Perry, Edward Tuckerman made major contributions to the study of lichen and was a founder of the Natural History Society of Boston.

Six years later, Franklin B. Hough would graduate from Union and go onto to an extremely successful career in natural history and would become known as the “father of American forestry.”

Graduate Julius Sterling Morton, another tree hugger, started the tradition of Arbor Day.

Hannibal Goodwin, class of 1848, invented a form of flexible film which was used by Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope.

Also in that class was famed painter and photographer James Stillman and 21st President of the United States, Chester A. Arthur.

Four years later, class of 1852, David Murray finished his time at Union and went on to help establish the Japanese education system.

The Class of 1877 can claim William B. Rankine, a chief engineer in the development of using the Niagara Falls as a source of power.

Not to be outdone, the Class of 1870 produced Solomon Deyo who was the chief engineer of the New York subway system.

The classes of the 1940s included Gordon Gould (1941) inventor of the laser, Armand V. Feigenbaum (1942) creator of Total Quality Control, Roland Fitzroy (1943) Manhattan project engineer, and Baruch S. Blumberg (1946) was a Nobel Prize winner in the field of medicine.

The list of incredible innovators goes on and on and is filled with many more names that could easily fill volumes of books.

Union, for more than 200 years, has been molding the minds of young thinkers and creating the leaders of tomorrow.

The students of the past and present embody many of the qualities of Charles Steinmetz.

The Steinmetz Symposium is the living legacy of Steinmetz.

It manifests the belief that “the first condition of which the college should fulfill is to turn out educated men (and women).”


Leave a Reply