Born Carl August Rudolph Steinmetz in what was then Breslau on April 9, 1865, Charles Proteus Steinmetz was a 1.22m hunchback genius inventor who at the time of his death in the United States after an astonishing and extremely colourful life on October 26, 1923 held over 200 patents. A radical socialist, Steinmetz received his Ph.D. in 1888 and was shortly after forced to flee the country for writing a paper strongly criticising the German government of the time. In 1889 Steinmetz emigrated to the US where he soon found a job working for the General Electric company in Schenectady, New York, having been head-hunted by none other than Thomas Edison himself.
A long fascination with alternating current led to him patenting a system for distributing AC power (the very life blood of our modern-day existence), a system he wholeheartedly believed would bring about a social revolution worldwide. Dedicating his time to his work and social causes, including a period as reforming president of Schenectady’s Board of Education and a member of the city’s council, though he never married, Steinmetz developed a father-son relationship with his young lab assistant, Joseph Le Roy Hayden, who later moved in with Steinmetz, along with his wife.
A keen lover of the great outdoors, our hero built his own campsite and was often seen being rowed up and down the Mohawk River doing mathematical calculations in a tiny canoe he’d had specially adapted into an office (an extract from his diary of the time reads, ‘It was a hot sunny day with almost no wind, and I sat in the sun and calculated instances of condenser discharge through an asymmetrical gas circuit.’).
Not one to let his disabilities get in the way of a good and worthy life, the Blackstone panatela cigar-smoking midget was a constant entertainer, cooking meals for a never-ending stream of guests to his house and filling it with pet crows, squirrels, racoons, cranes, dogs and a pet monkey named Jenny.
The most famous Steinmetz story relates to an incident after he’d left General Electric. The company was having immense problems operating a new system that simply wouldn’t work. Steinmetz was called in as a consultant and instantly found the problem, marking it with a piece of chalk. For his labours he submitted an invoice for $10,000 USD, itemised as "1) Making chalk mark $1, and 2) Knowing where to place it $9,999."
After his death, former President Herbert Hoover headed a committee to raise $25,000 USD to purchase Steinmetz’s house and convert it into a museum. The money was duly raised, but the city and state couldn’t agree on the responsibility for restoring it. The house was demolished in 1938, ending the reign of one of life’s more inspiring characters. The next time you switch on the bedside lamp to tuck into the latest In Your Pocket, spare a thought for the little people in life who’ve made such a difference to us all. And remember, it all started in Wrocław.