Union showcases new documentary on Charles Proteus Steinmetz


By Matt Olson

On Wednesday, May 7, Union showcased a new documentary produced by PBS, entitled Divine Discontent: Charles Proteus Steinmetz.

The documentary concerned the life of Steinmetz and his work toward developing alternating current.

Steinmetz was born in Breslau, Poland, and soon became a political refugee who immigrated to the United States in 1889 to avoid being persecuted for his socialist beliefs.

From there, he began his monumental work on alternating current, which, at the time, was not the preferred source of electricity.

Other scientists, such as Thomas Edison, preferred direct current as their power of choice.

Steinmetz began to work closely with Edison at General Electric in Schenectady, where he provided insight and worked to further develop his theory on alternating current.

It was in 1901 that Steinmetz began teaching at Union and became the chair of the Department of Electrical Engineering.

The documentary discusses Steinmetz’s life, as well as the factors that led to him working in Schenctady and contributing to the Union programs.

Steinmetz was born with multiple physical ailments, including hip dysplasia and dwarfism; he stood barely over four feet tall.

He was described as a man who “lived a robust, active life. He was not a recluse who confined himself to the lab, but was instead a warm, congenial man whose charm transcended the superficial impression of his physical appearance.”

Steinmetz became embedded in Schenectady during his time teaching at Union and working at GE.

He served as the head of the Schenectady City Council and the Board of Education for the Schenectady City School District.

He also served as the faculty advisor to Union’s chapter of Phi Gamma Delta for several years. Phi Gamma Delta’s chapter house was considered one of the first electrified houses in the world.

The documentary stated that Steinmetz, unlike other great scientists such as Edison and Albert Einstein, was forgotten by society after his death.

He is not as widely acclaimed for his work in science as Edison and Einstein. However, Schenectady and Union continue to remember his legacy and his contributions to science.

A park in Schenectady near Ellis Hospital is named after him, and Union celebrates his legacy with Steinmetz Hall and the annual Steinmetz Symposium, which began in 1991.


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