Biography of Charles Proteus Steinmetz


Charles Proteus Steinmetz, German-American electrical engineer and inventor, was a pioneer in the field of electrical engineering, who invented a commercially successful alternating current motor. He himself considered his three most important accomplishments to be: his work in the field of electromagnetism, the development of a practical, simplified method of managing and calculating values for alternating current using complex numbers, and his research on lightning phenomena.

Steinmetz also invented the three-phase electrical circuit. His work made possible the expansion of the electric power industry in the United States. Among his many inventions is the metallic electrode arc lamp. Charles P. Steinmetz was considered the leading electrical engineer in the United States. Originally named Karl August Rudolf Steinmetz, he was born in Breslau, Germany, the son of a railroad lithographer, Karl Heinrich Steinmetz (who was also a cripple) and his wife Caroline nee Neubert.

(Breslau is in the region known as Niederschlesien, Lower Silesia, which has been part of Bohemia, Austria and Prussia. Today the city is Wroclaw, Poland.) At birth Steinmetz was afflicted with a physical deformity, hunchback. Steinmetz’ early school performance was poor and at the age of eight he was having trouble with multiplication tables.

However, by the time he was ten, he had made a turnaround and was one of the school’s brightest pupils. He showed an unusual capability in mathematics, physics, and classical literature. On graduating from the gymnasium with honours, he entered the University of Breslau in 1883, where he devoured books on every subject from mathematics and economics to literature and medicine.

An example of his mind and memory was his memorization of the logarithmic tables which he could manipulate mentally to solve problems in a few seconds. He was fascinated with the study of electricity, but thecourses in Breslau were short on detail and completely lacking in the applied and practical. He did not see a transformer until he came to America.

For many years, even though his parents and his grandmother rather spoilied him, he felt himself to be an outsider because of his misshapen form. But during his student years, he was drawn to the socialist circles in Breslau, at first through a “Mathematictics Association”.

He met Heinrich Lux who, at that time, was full of enthusiasm for utopian settlements in America, as well as the young Gerhard Hauptmann who, in his Breslau years, was also intersted in the idea. When Lux and others were arrested, Steinmetz began to edit the socialist “People’s Voice”. One of the articles he wrote was considered inflammatory; the police began a crackdown on the paper, and Steinmetz had to flee Breslau (1888).

He fled to Switzerland without being able to tell his family. Later, when the Kaiser succeeded Bismark in power, he adopted most of the Socialists’s reform. The Swiss did not treat student radicals kindly, and when his friend Oscar Asmussen suggested going to America, Steinmetz agreed.

Asmussen had a rich uncle in America, and this wealth supplied theirtickets. A custom official at Ellis Island doubted Charles’s qualifications to be a valued citizen, based on his inability to speak English, being a cripple, and having no money. Asmussen interceded, offering to take care of Steinmetz until he was on his own, and by this slim chance, America acquired one of its most brilliant electrical engineers.

Charles Proteus Steinmetz in 1890

Steinmetz arrived in New York on July 1, 1889. In Yonkers, New York, Charles met a fellow German who had also fled to America (from repression of those who participated in the reform movement of 1848), an inventor and electrical engineer – Rudolph Eickemeyer, who had invented hat-making machinery and had a factory in Yonkers.

Eickemeyer wanted to expand into electrical motors and generators, a brand new field in 1889. These were designed by empirical methods, and Eickemeyer thought that he would let Steinmetz experiment with the electrical laws and discover data which could be used in design. Eickemeyer had also invented a magnetic bridge which Steinmetz could use in his research. Under the tutelage of his employer, Steinmetz became increasingly absorbed in the practical aspects of electrical engineering.

Steinmetz established a small laboratory at the factory, where he did much of his scientific research. Steinmetz’ experiments on power losses in the magnetic materials used in electrical machinery led to his first important work, the law of hysteresis. This law deals with the power loss that occurs in all electrical devices when magnetic action is converted to unusable heat.

Until that time the power losses in motors, generators, transformers, and other electrically powered machines could be known only after they were built. Once Steinmetz had found the law governing hysteresis loss, engineers could calculate and minimize losses of electric power due to magnetism in their designs before starting the construction of such machines.

On December 8, 1891 the Law of Hysteresis was explained in the magazine, “The Electrical Engineer”, and on January 19, 1892 it was the topic of a speech by Steinmetz to the American Institute of Electrical Engineers in New York City. His work was immediately recognized as a classic by the few who understood it, and the constant he calculated for this loss has remained a part of electrical engineering vocabulary.

It was just three years since he had landed in America, and Steinmetz was famous at age 27 in engineering circles. At about the same time, Steinmetz Americanized his first name to Charles and substituted Proteus, a university nickname, for his two middle names. His middle name Proteus, was named after the Greek god who could take on any shape or size.

His second contribution was a practical method for making calculationsconcerning alternating current circuits. This method was an example of using mathematical aids for engineering the design of machinery and power lines, so that the performance of the electrical system could be predicted in advance without the necessity of going through the expensive and uncertain process of building the system first and then testing it for its efficiency.

Steinmetz developed a symbolic method of calculating alternating-current phenomena and in so doing simplified an extremely complicated and barely understood field so that the average engineer could work with alternating current. This accomplishment was largely responsible for the rapid progress made in the commercial introduction of alternating-current apparatus.

Steinmetz’ method of calculation was presented to an uncomprehending audience at the International Electrical Congress in 1893. His book “Theory and Calculation of Alternating Current Phenomena” (co-authored with Ernst J. Berg in 1897) was read and understood by only a very few.

The problem that Steinmetz faced was that electrical engineers were not taught enough mathematics to understand his new mathematical treatment of problems. To educate the electrical engineering profession, he published several textbooks, including “Engineering Mathematics” (1911), and expanded his original 1897 book into three separate volumes. Gradually, through his writing, lecturing, and teaching, his method ofcalculation was universally adopted in work with alternating currents.

Thomas Edison founded the General Electric Company in 1886 and wanted to hire Steinmetz. In 1893 the newly formed General Electric Company purchased Eickemeyer’s company, primarily for his patents, but Steinmetz was considered one of its major assets. In 1894 Steinmetz was transferred to the main General Electric plant at Schenectady, New York. His original residence in Schenectady is still standing at 53 Washington Street.

At General Electric, in Schenectady, Steinmetz gained an expanded opportunity for research and implementation of his ideas. He was assigned to the new calculating department, the first job of which was to work on the company’s proposal for building the generators at the new Niagara Falls power station.

In 1894 the General Electric Company transferred its operations to Schenectady, N.Y., and Steinmetz was made head of the calculating department. He at once began to indoctrinate the engineers with his method of calculating alternating-current circuits. During the next 20 years he prepared a series of masterful papers and volumes which reduced the theory of alternating current to order.

At Schenectady he built a campsite on the Mohawk River. During the summer he would work in a canoe, sailing up and down the river. Boards would be placed from gunwale to gunwale to serve as a desk, and he would kneel on a cushion in the canoe doing mathematical calculations.

He enjoyed inviting guests to the camp on weekends and usually entertained from six to eight people, especially enjoying the company of children. As host he enjoyed doing the cooking, but refused to do dishes, which became the guests’ chore. In fact he would take out all of the dishes from the past several days for the guests to wash. When the camp was hit by lightening, Steinmetz invented a way to produce lightening so that he could study it.

Even when Steinmetz went out in his canoe, paper, pencil and slide rule accompanied him. In his diary he wrote, “It was a hot sunny day with almost no wind, and I sat in the sun and calculated instances of condenser discharge through an asymmetrical gas circuit.”

Charles Proteus Steinmetz built this simple cabin, overlooking Viele’s Creek near his home in Schenectady, New York, as both a summer retreat and a secluded haven in which to write and study.

In his scientific laboratory, built and stocked by General Electric adjacent to his Wendell Avenue home, Steinmetz studied such problems as the chemistry of electrical insulating materials and arc lights. This included experiments with the magnetite arc lamp, and in 1902, he arranged a demonstration on Wendell Avenue. It was a huge success and soon cities across the country were adopting his new lighting system.

In his Wendell Avenue conservatory Steinmetz experimented with the effects of lighting and synthetic fertilizers on the growth of plants. He also used his greenhouse for raising orchids and cacti. His greenhouse, in which he grew unusual plants, was often the subject of — not always friendly — articles. It was said that he preferred ugly, prickly plants.

Rarely was he seen without one of his favorite Blackstone panetella cigars. Frequently on Friday nights his colleagues would visit his house at 1297 Wendell Avenue, bullt in the General Electric Plot area where the homes of other General Electric executives had been built. He had formed a club, “The Society for the Adjustment of Salaries.” The members spent the evening and late hours playing draw poker. During a crackdown on smoking at the G.E. labs, Steinmetz was told that his ever-present cigar had to go. His reply is reported to have been “If the cigar goes, Steinmetz goes!”

Among Steinmetz’s distinguished visitors was Marchese Guglielmo Marconi, inventor of the first practical radio system and recipient of the Nobel Prizefor Physics in 1909.

Another of Steinmetz’s distinguished visitors was Albert Einstein who came to Schenectedy in 1921. It was in that year Einstein received the Nobel Prize in physics.

In 1903 Steinmetz was approached by Andrew Raymond, president of Union College in Schenectady and asked if he would give some assistance to the school. Steinmetz was widely regarded as the leading electrical engineer in the United States. He nonetheless took charge of Union’s new electrical engineering curriculum, serving as Professor of Electrical Engineering and Applied Physics. Far from merely lending his name to the endeavor, Steinmetz served actively as a lecturer in both undergraduate and post-graduate courses. He wished for his students “the spirit of divine discontent, for without it the world would stand still.”

Charles Proteus Steinmetz was “the most widely known professor ever a member of the Union College faculty.” From 1902 to 1913 Steinmetz headed the School of Electrical Engineering and guided it in becoming one of the best in the nation.

He resigned as head of the department in 1913 but continued teaching at the school until 1923. Over this twenty-one year period he attended all faculty meetings but would not accept remuneration from the school for any of his services. When Phi Gamma Delta needed a new fraternity house he helped raise the funds, and also attended the fraternity parties and spoke each year at the induction ceremony for new members.

When James Lunn, a Socialist, became mayor of Schenectady, Steinmetz served as president of the Common Council and also served six years on the Schenectady Board of Education, four of them as its president. His leadership brought about the building of more schools in order to eliminate the practice of some students attending school for only half a day.

The school system hired seven nurses and seven part-time doctors, and special rooms were set aside for the feeding of undernourished students. He worked to have ungraded classes instituted for immigrant children with language problems; five classrooms were set aside for learning disabled pupils, and all primary grade textbooks issued would now be free of charge. He served as president of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers in 1901-02.

Steinmetz, like Edison, was also a prolific inventor and achieved nearly 200 patents for various electrical devices. Without Charles Steinmetz’s development of theories of alternating current, the expansion of the electric power industry in the United States in the early 20th century would have been impossible, or at least greatly delayed. Charles P. Steinmetz once remarked, “I want to say that absolutely all the success I have had has been due to my thorough study of mathematics.” In 1901 Harvard University conferred on him an Honorary Derree and in 1903 Union College awarded him the degree of Doctor of Philosophy.

Steinmetz’ third major scientific achievement was in the study and theory of electrical transients – that is, changes in electrical circuits of very short duration.

A prime example of this phenomenon is lightning, and Steinmetz’ investigation of lightning phenomena resulted in his theory of traveling waves and opened the way for his development of devices to protect high-power transmission lines from lightning bolts. In the course of this work he also designed a generator that produced a discharge of 10,000 amperes and more than 100,000 volts, equivalent to a power of more than 1,000,000 horsepower for 1/100,000 of a second. This was his last major project at the General Electric Company, where he had become head of the engineering consulting department.

This patent, granted on 7 May 1912, shows an attempt by Charles Proteus Steinmetz to improve the color of mercury vapor lamps by adding halide salts. The lamp used mercury “pools” as electrodes (labeled “D” in Figure 1), with a layer of metallic halides on the surface of the pools. (“F” in the same figure). The problem with this design was that the electrical arc danced around on the surface of the pool, preventing a consistent color from being generated.

Charles Steinmetz formed the Steinmetz Electric Motor Car Co. in 1920 to designed prototypes of several electric vehicles. The company was in Brooklyn, where it produced an industrial truck and a lightweight delivery car.

The first electrical Steinmetz truck hit the road in early 1922 by climbing a steep hill in Brooklyn as a publicity stunt. In October, the company claimed to have developed a five-passenger coupe. Steinmetz planned for the company to turn out 1,000 trucks and 300 cars annually, but that was cut short by his death in 1923. The company folded shortly after Steinmetz’s death when a lawsuit from a shareholder revealed that the company had misrepresented the number of cars being produced.

Dr. Steinmetz was not only a scientist but a thinker and writer as well. Steinmetz did not abandon his socialist ideals, but tried to find a common denominator for them and the American economic system in which he played so prominent a role. He wrote his book, “America and the New Time”, in which he urged a four-hour day. The fact that Germany, to which he urged a four-hour day.

The fact that Germany, to which he was still emotionally attached, was at war against his chosen home, America, affected him profoundly. Since he spoke his mind, he suffered severe attacks, which he disregarded. Even while World War I was going on, he propagated the idea of a united Europe — without, however, receiving much of an echo. He also wrote about racism in America. Steinmetz was influenced by several factors in his life. His religion, background, and occupation all added to the ideals that he espoused in his works. His scientific and philosophic works have been read and analyzed by other scholars, but the original works are still fresh.

This picture was made in Schenectady on the occasion of the last visit of Thomas A. Edison to Schenectady and the General Electric Company, in 1922. Mr. Edison is shown with Dr. Charles Proteus Steinmetz (right), examining porcelain insulators that had been smashed by Steinmetz’s artificial lightning.

Steinmetz was never married, fearful that deformed children like himself would be born, but had “acquired” a family by adopting a young engineer, J.L. Hayden, who later married and lived in the house with his wife and children that Charles had built for them. He loved children and was loved by them. The picture shows Steinmetz with the grandchildren Midge, Billy, Joe, and his adopted son, Joseph Hayden in 1914.

This picture shoes the Hayden-Steinmetz family in the Wendell Avenue home. At the left is Corinne (Mrs. Hayden). To Steinmetz, however, she was Mother. On her lap is William (Billy), then Steinmetz (Daddy), followed by Joe. Next is Joseph LeRoy Hayden (Father) with Marjory (Midge) on his lap.

He almost single-handedly reformed the schools of his adopted city, and provided a Christmas present for every orphan in town. He also loved animals and his house was like a zoo with pet crows, squirrels, raccoons, cranes, dogs, a pet monkey named “Jenny,” etc. living there. Neighbors brought injured animals to him to be cared for.

Charles Proteus Steinmetz died in his sleep on October 26, 1923, of heart failure. A friend said “Chapters have been written of his greatness intellectually; as many more could be filled with his kindnesses. Dwarfed, perhaps, in body, but with a heart as big as the universe and a soul as pure as a child’s.” Governor Alfred E. Smith of New York is quoted as saying, “He always wanted to help everybody.”

Charles Steinmetz was buried on the Vale Cemetery, Schenectady, NY, U.S.A.

After Steinmetz’s death, former President Herbert Hoover headed a committee to raise $25,000 to purchase the house and convert it into a museum. The money was raised but the city and state could not agree on the responsibility for restoring it, so it was torn down in 1938.

The IEEE Charles Proteus Steinmetz Award was established by the Board of Directors in 1979. It may be presented annually to an individual for major contributions to the development of standards in the field of electrical and electronics engineering. Recipient selection is administered through the Technical Field Awards Council of the IEEE Awards Board. The award consists of a bronze medal, certificate and a cash prize.

In 1983 the United States Post office issued a postage stamp in his honor.

Quotes from Charles Steinmetz:

In the realm of science, all attempts to find any evidence of superhatural beings, of metaphysical conceptions, as God, immortality, infinity, etc., thus have failed, and if we are honest, we must confess that in science there exists no God, no immortality, no soul or mind as distinct from the body.
– Charles Steinmetz, quoted in American Freeman, July, 1941, quoted from James A. Haught, ed., 2000 Years of Disbelief

No evidence or proof of the existence of a God has been found in the phenomena of nature, based on experience.
– Charles Steinmetz (source unknown)

No man really becomes a fool until he stops asking questions.
– Charles Steinmetz, quoted from The Speaker’s Electronic Reference Collection, AApex Software (1994)

Here’s an interesting anecdote, as told by Charles M. Vest, President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, during commencement on June 4th, 1999. “In the early years of this century, Steinmetz was brought to General Electric’s facilities in Schenectady, New York.

GE had encountered a performance problem with one of their huge electrical generators and had been absolutely unable to correct it. Steinmetz, a genius in his understanding of electromagnetic phenomena, was brought in as a consultant – not a very common occurrence in those days, as it would be now. Steinmetz also found the problem difficult to diagnose, but for some days he closeted himself with the generator, its engineering drawings, paper and pencil. At the end of this period, he emerged, confident that he knew how to correct the problem. After he departed, GE’s engineers found a large “X” marked with chalk on the side of the generator casing. There also was a note instructing them to cut the casing open at that location and remove so many turns of wire from the stator. The generator would then function properly.

And indeed it did. Steinmetz was asked what his fee would be. Having no idea in the world what was appropriate, he replied with the absolutely unheard of answer that his fee was $1000. Stunned, the GE bureaucracy then required him to submit a formally itemized invoice. They soon received it. It included two items: 1. Marking chalk “X” on side of generator: $1. 2. Knowing where to mark chalk “X”: $999.”


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