Steinmetz, Charles

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Electrical engineer and socialist Charles Proteus Steinmetz (1865–1923), born in Breslau, Germany, on April 9, was a public figure of the Progressive Era who tried to engineer a better society by creating an early code of engineering ethics, running for political office, and advocating a technocratic form of socialism. He died on October 26 in Schenectady, New York.

Trained in mathematics and physics, Steinmetz emigrated to the United States in 1889 to avoid being arrested for his socialist activities as a student in Germany. He became a leading researcher in the areas of magnetic hysteresis (a property of the metal cores used in transformers and electrical machines) and theories of alternating currents, electrical machinery, and high-voltage transmission lines. As chief consulting engineer of the newly formed General Electric Company (GE), which he joined in 1893, Steinmetz trained a generation of engineers in the use of advanced mathematics to design electrical equipment, established an engineering research laboratory, and published several books while teaching part-time at Union College in Schenectady, New York, the headquarters of GE. A dwarfed hunchback with a flair for publicity, he gained a national reputation as an electrical wizard for creating lightning in the laboratory and engaging in politics within and outside the engineering profession.

Steinmetz developed a distinct philosophy regarding the social responsibility of engineering. He argued that engineers should compromise with business interests in regard to ethical concerns within professional societies and address political issues on their own. In this way, engineers could maintain control over the profession against commercial interests and be able to promote political solutions in a wider arena.

Steinmetz carried out that philosophy in 1912 when he helped write the first code of ethics for the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (AIEE), the forerunner to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). Steinmetz was a president of the AIEE (1901–1902) and an active member of its first two ethics committees. The AIEE code, established in 1912, favored the interests of the employer over that of the engineer—up to a point. Rather than making engineers responsible for defective equipment, as the first draft of the code had done, for example, the revised code required engineers simply to report the problem, a common element in twenty-first century engineering codes of ethics. Inside GE, Steinmetz advised engineers in his group to keep silent rather than defend a company position with which they disagreed.

Steinmetz was active in politics at all levels. He served as president of the board of education under George Lunn, the socialist mayor of Schenectady in 1912, and was president of the city council in 1915. An evolutionary socialist who belonged to the conservative wing of the Socialist Party of America, Steinmetz drew on his corporatist experiences at GE, his work in local politics, his presidency of the AIEE, and as president of the National Association of Corporate Schools (NACS) to develop a theory of corporate socialism, which he expressed in some detail in America and the New Epoch (1916). In this form of technocracy, an enlightened industrial corporation, one that attended to the welfare of its workers, was the model for society. He proposed that the U.S. government be reorganized like an efficient corporation with democratic safeguards. The government would own and operate transportation and communication systems. An Industrial Senate, composed of leaders of large corporations, would coordinate and supervise industry. A democratically elected Tribunicate would set national and foreign policy, but could only veto the Senate.

Near the end of his life, Steinmetz acted on his belief that widespread electrification, by requiring cooperation to build networks and regulate consumption, would lead to socialism. He ran for New York state engineer in 1922 on a platform of harnessing the full power of Niagara Falls. The same year, he offered to help Vladimir Ilyich Lenin electrify Russia, in accord with Lenin's proposal text "Soviets + Electricity = Socialism."

To resolve the tensions he faced as a corporate engineer and a socialist, Steinmetz developed a patchwork of compromises that allowed agencies, such as the AIEE and NACS, and engineering colleges to retain autonomy by cooperating with industrial corporations. This would prepare corporations to become the model for the state and thus would be a step on the road to socialism. His ideas influenced President Woodrow Wilson's war collectivism and later proposals for the New Deal.

Steinmetz was able to promote his peculiar combination of conservative and radical views because of his public status as an electrical wizard, a new breed of scientific researcher that replaced cut-and-try inventors such as Thomas Edison. Steinmetz used his public position to demonstrate one way in which corporate engieers could address ethical and social issues in engineering.


SEE ALSO Engineering Ethics.


Jordan, John M. (1989). "Society Improved the Way You Can Improve a Dynamo: Charles P. Steinmetz and the Politics of Efficiency." Technology and Culture 30: 57–82.

Kline, Ronald R. (1992). Steinmetz: Engineer and Socialist. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Layton, Edwin T., Jr. (1986 [1971]). Revolt of the Engineers: Social Responsibility and the American Engineering Profession. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Steinmetz, Charles P. (1916). America and the New Epoch. New York: Harper & Brothers.