by O.J. Ferguson

The personalities of great men always interest us. Some-how or other, we unconsciously fall into the attitude of believing that they do not have the common attributes. They must be made of different stuff from the rest of us. They live on different planes.

Well, occasionally we do find one who promotes this idea in self protection, as a means of fending off multitudinous interruptions to his thought and work, but, in general, the armor is only a false one, the shield only cardboard. If we have good reason to penetrate the protection, we find a lot of good, solid, human nature. In spite of greatness, "A man's a man for a' that!"

Steinmetz was a very friendly, modest and unpretentious man. His speech was casual and ordinary, the strictly grammatical, and his interests were real and broad. He was one of the world's greatest engineers, but he was a good botanist too. He read Homer and Cicero in the originals. He would even converse with you in these classical tongues! He was a student above everything else, to his dying day.

But he was objective minded too. In the hothouse attached to his residence he had collected many things he wished to study because they were unusual, or not well known. He went from orchids to cacti; and, in the animal world, from white mice to gila monsters and horned toads.

People were one of his hobbies, which accounts for certain limited socialistic tendencies and for his interest in education.

For many years he was the head of the Department of Electrical Engineering at Union College, Schenectady, and in his later years the professor of electro-physics there. For a time he was chairman of the Board of Education of Schenectady, in which several places he was active and effective.

Among the duties he assumed was that of giving regular courses of lectures in electrical engineering, to senior engineering students at Union. He was always unique in his presentations and informal in his methods. When he came into the classroom, he would pull his dollar watch out of his trousers pocket and lay it face upward upon the desk before him. He would continue to puff is cigar until bell-time, when he would carefully lay it across his watch face and begin. "Between halves" (for some of his lectures were two hours in length) the cigar was again lighted and used to help orient his thoughts.

He never used notes, but went straight forward with either his theory or his examples, painstakingly and thoroughly. When in solving a numerical problem, he needed trigonometric tables, I have seen him write from memory an entire set of ten or more numerical values of sines, cosines, or other functions.

A little old Mannheim slide rule was his handy companion upon which he depended for ready calculations, although the celluloid of one scale had loosened at one end and shrunk one sixteenth of an inch.
Frequently, at home, just before he was to give an evening lecture to A. I. E. L., Sigma Xi, or some other body, he would lie down immediately after dinner, "to organize his thoughts." He was sure to go to sleep, but either before or after thus composing himself his ideas marshalled themselves into an orderly form, and when he was wakened to go to the lecture he was fully prepared.

While writing his most mathematical book, "Transient Phenomena," he would insist upon having his daughter-in-law read to him some of Jack London's books. He was very fond of these stories, and would prove his bilateral attention by retelling the events of the last several pages when challenged to do so by an unbelieving reader.

One of his recreations was to spend the hot weeks of the summer in a camp he built on the Mohawk River several miles west of Schenectady. The house was on stilts, out over the steep river bank, and stairsteps led down to the little dock where the canoe waited. He was like a fish, in the water, and alternated in and out of the canoe, as it floated lazily in the shadowy places under the overhanging trees. A movable board across the canoe top constituted the table where he worked out many an intricate problem and set down the solution, or noted instructions to research assistants in the laboratories at the G. E.  The effects of a lightning stroke at the camp intensified his interest in lightning phenomena and led directly to much
of his experimental and theoretical study of this major subject.

He enjoyed a good joke and was not above springing one himself. After a prominent physicist had given a lecture before the local chapter of the A. I. E. E., upon the subject of the mechanical analogs of electric circuits, I asked Steinmetz what he had thought of the talk. He replied, slyly, "0h, it was very interesting! Very interesting! It teaches one so much about mechanics, of which one would not otherwise think!"

Steinmetz was physically handicapped by Pott's disease, which left him a hunchback, with shortened stature. He stood little over four feet tall, and was stockily built. He never lost his decided German accent, and many persons had difficulty in understanding him, at least until they became better acquainted with him. His eyes were bright and lively—and twinkled in a friendly fashion.

He greatly disliked to hurt any man's feelings, though he could be caustic in debate. He was much bothered by budding or would-be inventors, and idea-chasers,  whether from his company or elsewhere. If he caught sight of one of these too-frequent visitors approaching the laboratory which he had built back of his house on Wendell Avenue, he would whisper to his foster son, "There comes that d——d X. I'm going to hide!" And hide he did, by slipping into the house until the caller had dispaired of his appearance, and betaken himself away.

Steinmetz was one of the great men of science. His name is high in the roll of honor. And, withal, he was a lovable, friendly soul., unspoiled by his own tragedies, but perhaps by them made more commonly human. It was a great day for this country when the police of Breslau chased him out of Germany for his socialistic activities as a student, for it eventually led him thru Switzerland to America.

    -- 0. J.. FERGUSON