John Dos Passos died last September, much to the sorrow of this magazine, to which he had contributed frequently in recent years. He had turned from the novel to formal history, but in his youth he had already shown a great flair for bringing the past to life in idiosyncratic "prose poems," of which the following is a fine example.
Steinmetz was a hunchback,
the son of a hunchback lithographer.
He was born in Breslau in eighteen sixty-five, graduated with highest honors at seventeen from the Breslau Gymnasium, went to the University of Breslau to study mathematics;
mathematics to Steinmetz was muscular strength and long walks over the hills and the kiss of a girl in love and big evenings spent swilling beer with your friends;
on his broken back he felt the top-heavy weight of society the way workingmen felt it on their straight backs, the way poor students felt it, was a member of a socialist club, editor of a paper called The People’s Voice.
Bismarck was sitting in Berlin like a big paperweight to keep the new Germany feudal, to hold down the empire for his bosses the Hohenzollerns.
Steinmetz had to run off to Zurich for fear of going to jail; at Zurich his mathematics woke up all the professors at the Polytechnic; but Europe in the eighties was no place for a penniless German student with a broken back and a big head filled with symbolic calculus and wonder about electricity that is mathematics made power and a socialist at that.
With a Danish friend he sailed for America steerage on an old French line boat La Champagne, lived in Brooklyn at first and commuted to Yonkers where he had a twelve-dollar a week job with Rudolph Eichemeyer who was a German exile from forty-eight an inventor and electrician and owner of a factory where he made hat-making machinery and electrical generators. In Yonkers he worked out the theory of the Third Harmonics and the law of hysteresis which states in a formula the hundredfold relations between the metallic heat, density, frequency when the poles change places in the core of a magnet under an alternating current. It is Steinmetz’s law of hysteresis that makes possible all the transformers that crouch in little boxes and gable-roofed houses in all the high-tension lines all over everywhere. The mathematical symbols of Steinmetz’s law are the patterns of all transformers everywhere.
In eighteen ninety-two when Eichemeyer sold out to the corporation that was to form General Electric, Steinmetz was entered in the contract along with other valuable apparatus. All his life Steinmetz was a piece of apparatus belonging to General Electric. First his laboratory was at Lynn, then it was moved and the little hunchback with it to Schenectady, the electric city. General Electric humored him, let him be a socialist, let him keep a greenhouseful of cactuses lit up by mercury lights, let him have alligators, talking crows and a gila monster for pets and the publicity department talked up the wizard, the medicine man who knew the symbols that opened up the doors of Ali Baba’s cave. Steinmetz jotted a formula on his cuff and next morning a thousand new powerplants had sprung up and the dynamos sang dollars and the silence of the transformers was all dollars, and the publicity department poured oily stories into the ears of the American public every Sunday and Steinmetz became the little parlor magician, who made a toy thunderstorm in his laboratory and made all the toy trains run on time and the meat stay cold in the icebox and the lamp in the parlor and the great lighthouses and the searchlights and the revolving beams of light that guide airplanes at night towards Chicago, New York, St. Louis, Los Angeles, and they let him be a socialist and believe that human society could be improved the way you can improve a dynamo and they let him be pro-German and write a letter offering his services to Lenin because mathematicians are so impractical who make up formulas by which you can build powerplants, factories, subway systems, light, heat, air, sunshine but not human relations that affect the stockholders’ money and the directors’ salaries. Steinmetz was a famous magician and he talked to Edison tapping with the Morse code on Edison’s knee because Edison was so very deaf and he went out West to make speeches that nobody understood and he talked to Bryan about God on a railroad train and all the reporters stood round while he and Einstein met face to face, but they couldn’t catch what they said and Steinmetz was the most valuable piece of apparatus General Electric had until he wore out and died.
FROM The 42nd Parallel , PUBLISHED BY HUOGHTON MIFFLIN COMPANY. COPYRIGHT 1930, 1958 BY JOHN DOS PASSOS