Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 276:
STEINMETZ

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 276.

Today, we meet a fine engineer and would-be socialist. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Charles Proteus Steinmetz was born in 1865 in a part of present-day Poland that was then Germany. He was hunch-backed, but that didn't slow him down. He was outgoing and popular in school. While he finished off a doctorate in mathematics, he also worked as a radical student activist. His aim was to go on to one of the utopian socialist communities that many Europeans were setting up in the American Midwest.

Steinmetz found his way to America after school, but instead of a utopian community, he went to work for an electric streetcar company in Yonkers. General Electric absorbed the company -- and Steinmetz with it -- four years later. And Steinmetz's name has been linked to GE ever since. He did brilliant work there -- made basic contributions to magnetic theory, to the mathematics of multi-phase circuitry, and to lightning control. His 195 patents had a lot to do with GE's industrial dominance.

But his relationship with GE went beyond technical contributions. Steinmetz was nothing if not colorful. His brilliance was matched only by his ability to generate good newspaper copy, and GE used him shamelessly. Author John Jordan tells us how GE exploited Steinmetz's pet alligators, his cigar smoking, his cactus-raising, his mathematical genius. They even managed to turn his politics to their advantage.

Steinmetz's politics never seemed to vary. Yet I've always distrusted deeply-held principles when they fail to get a person into trouble. He was flamboyantly socialistic. He wrote to Lenin just after the Russian Revolution offering to help electrify Russia. Lenin declined Steinmetz's help but sent him a signed picture. And Steinmetz proudly mounted it on the wall.

Steinmetz saw the large industrial corporation as the agent of American socialist reform. Efficiency was his watchword. We would improve American life by letting the efficiency of big business serve workers' needs. Logic and centralization are twin themes in all Steinmetz's writings on the revision of society.

I was a child in the next decade after Steinmetz's death. During those years, posters advocating Technocracy dotted the American landscape. Technocracy, my father told me, aimed to make rational use of engineering to cure the Depression. I was only eight, and it was hard to understand my father's skepticism. Steinmetz lived in the childhood of modern industrial America. The political form of that America was much too complex to fit into his strange wedding of socialism and corporate capitalism. Steinmetz's socialism has long since been forgotten. What survives him is real accomplishment in the more straightforward world of engineering.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Jordan, J.M., 'Society Improved the Way You Can Improve a Dynamo': Charles P. Steinmetz and the Politics of Efficiency. Technology and Culture, Vol. 30, No. 1, pp. 57-82.

Steinmetz, C. P., Theoretical Elements of Electrical Engineering. 4th ed., New York: Mcgraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1915.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.


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