A Meeting of the Minds in Schenectady

LordKelvininSchenectadyhigherres.jpgThis picture of Schenectady’s industrial past pops up from time to time, usually vaguely captioned as “Lord Kelvin visits the General Electric works.” That Spencer Trask is in the picture is sometimes mentioned. (The New York Public Library has one decent source for the photograph.)  That the captions rarely identify the highly notable Charles Steinmetz or any of the other notables in the picture is odd. So, what’s going on here?

Lord Kelvin was William Thomson, born in Belfast in 1824. He became one of the most noted scientists of his age, developing important mathematical analysis of electricity and thermodynamics and helping to develop modern physics, while also developing telegraphy. He was knighted by Queen Victoria for his work on a transatlantic telegraph. He also found the correct value of absolute zero temperature, now named in his honor. He served as a professor of natural philosophy at the University of Glasgow. Science-wise, he was a huge deal. In the photograph, he is center in the light suit and hat. The lady is the Lady Kelvin, his wife.

Spencer Trask was a financier and venture capitalist who routinely backed inventors, particularly Thomas Edison. Trask served as president of the New York Edison Company (later known as Consolidated Edison) and chairman of the New York Times. Around these parts, he’s a hero because his Saratoga Springs estate became the artist colony Yaddo, which wasn’t created until a dozen years after his death in a train wreck at Croton. Trask here is to the left of Lord Kelvin in front, wearing the bowler and with a walking stick.

In September 1897, Lord Kelvin came to our area after having attended meetings of the British Association in Toronto. “The Iron Age” of October 7, 1897 reported on the visit to the Schenectady General Electric Company  on September 23; so did “The Western Electrician,” which ran nearly the identical article. They reported that “Lord Kelvin, accompanied by Lady Kelvin, Count di Brazza-Savorgnan, Spencer Trask, Alanson Trask, R.R. Bowker and Professor Elihu Thomson, visited the works of the General Electric company on September 23d. He was met by Captain Eugene Griffin, Joseph P. Ord and E.W. Rice, Jr., the three vice-presidents of the company, and S. Dana Greene, manager of the lighting department. In addition there were present W.F. Merrill, vice-president and general manager of the Erie railroad, Dr. Louis Duncan, Dr. Cary T. Hutchinson, Frank J. Sprague, T.C. Martin, Chas. W. Price, H.G. Prout, C.T. Childs, J.J. Swan, W.J. Clark, W.B. Potter. A.H. Rohrer, C.P. Steinmetz and others.”

Another article in The Electrical Engineer adds even more names from GE, including S.M. Hamill, Jr., J.R. Lovejoy, J. Conover, J. McGhie, F. Shepard, J. Kruesi and others, and sayd that Mr. H.r. Bacon of the Canal & Claiborne Railroad in New Orleans was also in the party.

For anyone familiar with the early history of electricity, that is nothing short than an assemblage of the gods. The story of what they saw is posted here; below are brief biographies of the luminaries on this factory tour.

Count Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza (the article didn’t get his name quite right) was an Italian-born explorer who, on behalf of his adopted France, led the colonization of Central Africa. The capital of the Republic of the Congo, Brazzaville, was named for him. In 1887, he had just been dismissed as governor-general of the French Congo. It’s just possible he’s pictured third from the right in a bowler, though that bears a resemblance to only one photo of de Brazza that we’ve seen; in others, he is quite the looker and it seems like he would stand out in this photo.  He appears to have been associated with Spencer Trask, who had an interest in the di Brazza Postal Device and Lock Company, which in a later year held a patent assignment from Detalmo di Brazza Savorgnan family in Rome. When an earthquake devastated Calabria in 1905, Spencer Trask served as a collector for funds raised to be sent to Countess Cora di Brazzà-Savorgnan, wife of Detalmo and relative of Pierre.

Elihu Thomson was an electrical inventor and founder of the Thomson-Houston Electric Company, and as much as General Electric has preferred to trace its legacy to Thomas Edison, the truth is that it was Thomson’s company that really formed the basis for the modern corporate behemoth. Its merger with Edison General Electric formed the new General Electric Company in 1892. He is likely to be the gent to Steinmetz’s immediate left, next to Lady Kelvin in the front row.

Alanson Trask was Spencer Trask’s son, only perhaps two years old at this time; he would die by the age of five. All four of the Trask children died in infancy or childhood. He does not appear to be in this photograph.

Richard Rogers Bowker was the editor of Publisher’s Weekly and Harper’s Magazine, and the first president of the New York Library Club. In 1896, the year before this picture was taken, he became manager of The New York Times, thus his association with Trask. I suspect he is two heads to the right of Trask, from our viewpoint.

Edwin Wilbur Rice, Jr. was considered one of the fathers of GE (along with Elihu Thomson and Charles Coffin). He was a student of Elihu Thomson when Elihu taught in Philadelphia, and joined him in the electrical industry, growing the Lynn, Massachusetts factory of Thomson-Houston into an industrial powerhouse with 4000 employees.  At the time of this picture, he was GE’s vice president of manufacturing and engineering, and is slightly honored in Schenectady through the naming of Rice Road. Eventually Rice became President of General Electric. Rice is the fellow in the round-rimmed glasses and light-colored hat just behind Lady Kelvin’s right shoulder.

“Captain” Eugene Griffin would later be General Eugene Griffin, who at the time of his death in 1907 was first vice-president and manager of the sales department at GE. An 1875 West Point graduate, he entered the Engineering Corps, rising to captain. In 1889, according to “Electrical West,” he resigned the army to take up electrical engineering work, joining Thomson Houston. After the consolidation, he became first vice president of GE, and became president of the Thomson Houston International Electric Company. On the outbreak of war with Spain, shortly after this photograph was taken, he organized and commanded the First Regiment United States Volunteer Engineers during the Spanish-American war and was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General. His is the sole clean-shaven face, immediately to Lady Kelvin’s left. 

Joseph Pacificus Ord, another of the GE vice presidents. He came from an auditor’s position with the West Shore Railroad, and was selected to serve as comptroller of Edison General Electric in 1890. The “General Electric Review” said that Ord “was not a trained accountant, nor did he make any pretensions to skill in finance; but this experience in the auditing department and a natural talent for the construction of forms and office routine, together with the ability to say ‘No’ and to stick to it . . . enabled him to render important service….” Though he left GE in 1902, he remained a director of the corporation until his death in 1913. (interestingly for the time, when he died at the age of 60 years, he left behind a daughter, his only offspring, aged 5.)

Samuel Dana Greene, general manager of the lighting department of General Electric, was also a military man. He was the son of Commander Samuel Dana Greene, second in command of the Monitor when it fought the Merrimac (most would say the Virginia). S.D. junior graduated top of his class from the Naval Academy in 1883, but only served until 1888, when he left for the allure of electricity, became chief engineer of Sprague Electric Railway and Motor Company and then became associated with Thomas Edison. He also went off to war in 1891, then became commanding officer of the New York Naval Militia and joined Governor Theodore Roosevelt’s staff. Tragically, he and his wife died just a couple of years after this, on Jan. 8, 1900, when they were out skating on the Mohawk River near Freeman’s Bridge after dark, fell into a cut in the ice and drowned in the river. The funeral at St. George’s in the Stockade was reported as the largest ever held in Schenectady; Gov. Roosevelt and his military staff attended, along with 200 officials of GE and men who served under him during the Spanish-American War. I don’t find a picture of this S.D. Greene, but if he looked like his father, he could easily be mistaken for the gent immediately to Steinmetz’s right, but he could also be the fellow on the very far right of the group.

William Fessenden Merrill was a civil engineer and railroad man who had served with railroads all over the Midwest. He was the general manager of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad out west before coming back east to serve as second vice president of the Erie Railroad, which he was when this picture was taken.  He may have been here because the party saw a demonstration of a new brake for electric railways. I had thought he was the fellow farthest to the left, with the bowler and umbrella, but now I think it more likely that’s Frank Sprague.

Dr. Louis Duncan was another naval man who graduated the Academy in 1880 but who went to Johns Hopkins University to do graduate study in physics and electricity, where the “Electrical Review and Western Electrician” says he determined the unit of electrical resistance. (It was not the only time that the ohm, as it is known, was determined; it doesn’t have an absolute value.) A professor at Johns Hopkins, Duncan helped form a battalion of engineers in the Spanish-American War, and was ranked a major. He was president of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers when this picture was made, and was involved in pretty much every other scientific institute of the age. He was known as an electrical traction expert and was the consulting engineer in the electrification of the transit systems in New York City, but also worked on telephone systems. He could be the slightly blurry chap second from the left.

Dr. Cary Talcott Hutchinson would also, in 1901, serve as a consulting engineer along with Dr. Duncan in the electrification of NYC’s rapid transit. He also went to Johns Hopkins, then formed the firm of Sprague, Duncan and Hutchinson; he was connected with Sprague Electric Railway and Motor Company and the Edison GE at Schenectady, and was at one point vice president of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers. The sole picture I can find of him doesn’t give much to go on in picking him out of this crowd.

Frank J. Sprague was another Annapolis graduate, class of 1878, who dabbled in electricity, inventing a new type of dynamo while still in the service (a dynamo is a DC generator). He came to the attention of Edison and was lured to Menlo Park and is legendary for having brought some actual method (mathematics, for example) to the madness that the Wizard there favored. He left Edison to form the Sprague Electric Railway and Motor Company, which created an important non-sparking railway motor and regenerative braking, and vastly improved streetcars and, later, elevators. It appears he may be the gent farthest to the left, but I am far from certain.

Thomas Commerford Martin was also an electrical engineer whose father worked with Lord Kelvin, and TC spent time laying submarine telegraph cables. When he came to the United States in 1877, he became associated with Thomas Edison, but soon morphed into a role something like being the first evangelist of electricity: it was Martin, as a writer and editor, who fanned the flames of publicity that made men like Edison and Tesla media superstars of their day. He was editor of Electrical World from 1883 to 1909, and a founding member of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers. I believe he is the gent standing directly behind Steinmetz.

Charles W. Price was an editor and publisher from Chicago who published Electrical Review, a rival of Martin’s Electrical World, though he took that position in 1891, so it is possible he was among this group in another capacity.

Col. Henry Goslee Prout was the editor of the Railroad Gazette for 16 years, until 1903, and so likely was on this visit in that capacity.  He was a Civil War veteran who became a civil engineer, put himself through college by working on railroad surveys and then War Department surveys of the west. According to Railway Age, he entered the ervice of the Khédive of Egypt as a major of engineers, rising to colonel, performing geodetic and topographical engineering, studies for a hospital and military prison, repairs of fortifications, and more. On his return to America he became a switch engineer, and became editor of the Railroad Gazette in 1887. Best guess for him in this picture: fourth from the right in the light hat.

C.T. Childs is noted in several early electrical journals, and wrote a book called “How and Why of Electricity.” More than that I haven’t found.  

J.J. Swan at this time also appears to be a bit of an enigma, but appears to have held several positions with GE; In 1922 he was noted as presenting at the American Society of Mechanical Engineers on the topic of standardization of graphics.

W.J. Clark was the manager of the traction department of GE, and may have previously worked for Sprague. His job appears to have been to get GE’s motors into Sprague’s railways.

W.B. Potter was another traction man at GE, serving as chief engineer of the railway and traction department.

A.H. Rohrer would at some point become superintendent of the electrical works at Schenectady GE.

Charles Proteus Steinmetz, the dwarf fourth from the left, was one of the most brilliant minds in electrical history, an important figure in Schenectady politics and education, the developer of GE’s approach to research and professional development, and generally an inspiration. If you don’t know about him, you should.

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