Charles Proteus Steinmetz was known as the “Wizard of Schenectady”. He stood just four feet tall and had several disabilities. Despite his physical complications, he became a giant among scientific thinkers, counting Albert Einstein, Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison as friends. His contributions to mathematics and electrical engineering made him famous in his day.
He was born in 1865 in Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland), Steinmetz became a brilliant student of mathematics and chemistry at the University of Breslau, but he was forced to flee the country after the authorities became interested in his involvement with the Socialist Party. He arrived at Ellis Island, New York in 1888 and was nearly turned away because he was a dwarf. An American friend whom Steinmetz was travelling with convinced immigration officials that the young German PhD was a genius whose presence would someday benefit all of America. In just a few years, Steinmetz would prove him right.
Steinmetz was given the name Karl by his parents but after emigrating Americanized his name to Charles Steinmetz. He chose Proteus as his middle name—the nickname his professors in Germany had affectionately bestowed upon him in recognition of the shape-shifting sea god. In Greek mythology, Proteus was a cave-dwelling prophetic old man who always returned to his human form—that of a hunchback. Steinmetz appreciated the comparison enough to make it official.
In 1894 he moved to Schenectady, New York. He began working for General Electric and the evidence of his genius was immediate. Using complex mathematical equations, Steinmetz developed ways to analyze values in alternating current circuits. His discoveries changed the way engineers thought about circuits and machines and made him the most recognized name in electricity for decades.
Before long, the greatest scientific minds of the time were traveling to Schenectady to meet with the prolific “little giant”; anecdotal tales of these meetings are still told in engineering classes today. One appeared on the letters page of Life magazine in 1965, after the magazine had printed a story on Steinmetz. Jack B. Scott wrote in to tell of his father’s encounter with the Wizard of Schenectady at Henry Ford’s River Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan.
Henry Ford, whose electrical engineers couldn’t solve some problems they were having with a massive generator, called Steinmetz to the plant. Upon arriving, Steinmetz rejected all assistance and asked only for a notebook, pencil and a bed. According to Jack Scott, Steinmetz listened to the generator and scribbled computations on the notepad for two straight days and nights. On the second night, he asked for a ladder because he was too short to reach the spot. He climbed up and made a chalk mark on its side. Then he told Ford’s engineers, who were very sceptical, to remove a plate at the mark and replace sixteen windings from the field coil. They did, and the generator performed to perfection.
Henry Ford was thrilled until he got an invoice from General Electric to the amount of $10,000. Which was a huge amount at that time. Ford acknowledged Steinmetz’s success but balked at the figure. He asked for an itemized bill.
Steinmetz, Scott wrote, responded personally to Ford’s request with the following:
Making chalk mark on generator $1.
Knowing where to make mark $9,999.-Charles Proteus Steinmetz
Ford paid the bill.
I found this story inspiring and enlightening for several reasons.
Firstly, anyone can mark some chalk. The value is all about knowing where to mark the chalk.
Secondly, there are a few layers of metaphors here. His name Proteus really is a metaphor for his personality. He became a mystical seer of sorts and holds an air of mystery about him. This is a perplexing contrast to his profession as an engineer where he delivered precise commercial outcomes. And does so with arrogant certainty.
I think the other profound gem here is how he embraced his disability. I almost wrote that his disability was disregarded. But it wasn’t. Reading more about the man you find that his disability also brought him immense pain, and in turn, a sense of loss. However, he steps into it. Even the nomenclature he chooses for himself captures his disability. Proteus had a disability. He doesn’t use it as a crutch though. It’s intricate. It’s complex and sophisticated.
It seems that this all added to the value of the chalk. I think we naturally want to hide our failings, disabilities, pain and other blemishes from the world. Especially in commercial settings. And some times this is just wise and professional. But there are times when sophisticated and authentic honesty holds immense value.