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April 1, 2003
You are four feet tall, and you don't speak English. An immigration officer at Ellis Island bars your entry into America because of your deformity until

You are four feet tall, and you don't speak English. An immigration officer at Ellis Island bars your entry into America because of your deformity until a traveling companion convinces him that you are a wealthy mathematical genius.

Although Charles Steinmetz wasn't wealthy when he arrived in the United States, he was a genius whose contributions to the development of the electrical industry rank right up there with the electrical industry's founding fathers: Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla. Born in Germany in 1865, Steinmetz had to flee to Switzerland because of his socialist philosophy. After studying engineering in a Swiss university, he came to America in 1889 as one of the world's first electrical engineers. He was intent on developing a practical electrical power system.

Along with generally being credited for working out the complex mathematical methods that enabled electrical engineers to harness alternating current and use it to power the world's electrical systems, Steinmetz was one of the most interesting individuals to ever call the electrical industry home. The dozens of patents that he was granted for transformers, rotary motors, alternators and rotary converters paved the way for the development of the modern electrical system.

Steinmetz was also a benevolent genius. He never became a parent because of his fear of fathering dwarf children, but he gave freely to the orphans and poor of his adopted home, Schenectady, N.Y., while working there for Thomas Edison as a consultant and research chief at General Electric Co.

Steinmetz is also known for his work as a college professor; he was part-time head of electrical engineering at Union College, as well as professor of electro-physics there for 10 years. He taught class in the morning and worked in his home lab for General Electric in the afternoon. Apparently, he shared that lab with a nest of owls, several alligators, a raccoon, two black crows and a Gila monster, according to a 1998 article in the Union College student magazine. Steinmetz's most famous quote probably comes from the time he spent there teaching: “No man really becomes a fool until he stops asking questions.”

Steinmetz was one of the most famous electrical engineers ever, and the newspapers and magazines of his day loved to cover his latest invention or theory. General Electric even promoted him as its “Wizard of Science.”

One invention that did not succeed was his development of electric vehicles. The press covered the introduction of one electric vehicle in 1922, when the Steinmetz Electric Motor Car Co. drove the vehicle up a steep hill in Brooklyn, N.Y., as a publicity stunt.

When Steinmetz died in 1923, a friend said of him, “Chapters have been written on his greatness intellectually; as many more could be filled with his kindness. Dwarfed, perhaps, in body, but with a heart as a big as the universe and a soul as pure as a child's.”

As I research the early history of the electrical industry, I am amazed at how much impact a few giants have had on this business, and how their contributions endure to this day. It reminds me of the early days of our country, when a handful of men, including Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, shaped an entire nation. Learning about the contributions these amazing individuals made reminds us all that one person really can make a difference in their community, industry or nation.