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The Socialist Wizard of Schenectady

Lawrence Bush
October 25, 2017

Charles Proteus Steinmetz, a prolific inventor and lifelong socialist, died on this date in 1923. Faced with arrest for his political activities in Germany, Steinmetz emigrated in 1893 to the U.S., where his patents helped build the newly organized General Electric Company into an industrial giant. He fostered the development of alternating current, created artificial lightning in the laboratory, developed mathematical formulae that greatly enhanced the use of electrical motors in industry, and generally helped catalyze the electrification of America. Steinmetz’s celebrity also helped boost the Socialist Party to a nationwide membership of 88,000 by 1911, with Socialist mayors in 74 cities, including his own Schenectady. Though Steinmetz suffered from dwarfism and other congenital physical conditions, he lived to 75. Ernst J. Berg, his friend and colleague at GE, once commented that “it seems extraordinary that so much real work was done because we played so much.”

“There are no foolish questions and no man becomes a fool until he has stopped asking questions.” —Charles Steinmetz

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.