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
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
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