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Charles Proteus Steinmetz

May 3, 2012

Acclaimed science fiction author, Kurt Vonnegut, and I have several things in common. We both lived for short times in Schenectady, New York; we both worked for the same company, Vonnegut as a writer in its public relations department, and I as an engineer for its television station; and we both wrote science fiction novels, Vonnegut's quite well received, mine not yet published.

While I was in Schenectady, between my sophomore and junior years of college, there was not much for me to do, so I would explore the city. In one of my explorations, I stumbled upon Steinmetz Park. Since the Internet and Wikipedia had not been invented, I had no easy way to discover the person for whom this park was named. It was several years later that I was introduced to the life of Charles Proteus Steinmetz and wondered why he isn't better known.[1-4]

Charles Proteus SteinmetzCharles Proteus Steinmetz

(Via Wikimedia Commons).
Charles Proteus Steinmetz was born as Carl August Rudolph Steinmetz on April 9, 1865, in Breslau (now, Wrocław, Poland). He had the multiple birth defects of dwarfism, hunchback, and hip dysplasia, although from the photograph above you see nothing but a typical European professorial persona. Since Steinmetz's father and grandfather had similar birth defects, he decided he would never marry.

Steinmetz was a prodigy in physics and mathematics, but his Socialist sympathies forced him to flee Germany to Switzerland in 1888 before completion of his Ph.D. at the University of Breslau. In 1889, he emigrated to the United States. Although the floodgates of American immigration were open at the time, it took the persuasion of friend and fellow émigré, Oscar Asmussen, to persuade the immigration officer that this strange little man was a mathematical genius who should be allowed entry into the United States.

It was upon emigration that Steinmetz decided to change his name. He decided that "Charles" sounded more American that "Carl," and he added Proteus as a reference to the god of Greek mythology, Proteus (Πρωτευς).[2] Proteus would foretell the future to anyone who captured him, but he would change shape to avoid being captured. The shape-changing ability may have been an allusion to Steinmetz's unusual appearance. The fortune-telling part, aided by mathematics and theory, was actually what Steinmetz did.

Homer's Odyssey, Book IV, ll. 410-418Homer's Odyssey, Book IV, ll. 410-418. In this passage, Proteus is called "The Old Man" (γεροντος).

(Via Project Perseus). [5]

Upon his arrival in the United States, Steinmetz was hired by a fellow German émigré, Rudolf Eickenmeyer, to design electric motors and power transformers at the Osterheld and Eickenmeyer Company, Yonkers, New York.[1] During the course of his work, he discovered how magnetic hysteresis of transformer cores contributes to electrical power losses. He presented his Law of Hysteresis in the December 8, 1891 issue of the journal, The Electrical Engineer, followed in January 19, 1892, by a presentation at a meeting of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers in New York City.[1]

The success of the Osterheld and Eickenmeyer Company was well known in electrical circles, so much so that Edison's General Electric bought the company in 1893. General Electric got about two hundred important patents, and it also got Charles Steinmetz. Steinmetz worked for a year at a General Electric plant in Lynn, Massachusetts. He was then transferred to GE's main plant in Schenectady, New York.[1,3]

At General Electric, Steinmetz designed the generators for the Niagara Falls power-generation station. GE built him a laboratory adjacent to his Schenectady home, where he performed experiments on electrical insulators and arc lights. A figure from his arc light patent appears below.[3]

Figure captionFig. 4 of US Patent No. 1,025,932, "Means For Producing Light," by Charles P. Steinmetz, May 7, 1912.

In this figure, liquid mercury is heated to form a vapor that's arced by the same power supply.

(Via Google Patents). [6]

Steinmetz's Socialist leanings were apparent in his tenure on the Schenectady school board, on which he served for six years, four of which as its head. He had more schools built, expanded sessions from half days to full days, hired school doctors and nurses, provided free food to impoverished students, and free textbooks for elementary school grades. Learning disabled students, and English as a second language (ESL) students were given special instruction.[3]

Steinmetz was more successful at electrical engineering than others because of his application of mathematics. He coauthored a book, Theory and Calculation of Alternating Current Phenomena (1897), but found that few electrical engineers understood its contents.[3] He set about to change that by revising the electrical engineering curriculum at nearby Union College, and he became head of its School of Electrical Engineering through 1913. He served as a professor of electrical engineering and applied physics at Union College through 1923, refusing to accept pay for his services.[1,3]

Charles M. Vest, President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told an interesting anecdote about Steinmetz during MIT's June 4, 1999, commencement.[2] I heard the story much earlier, so the source is buried somewhere in the literature. Steinmetz was hired by GE as a consultant to discover the cause of a performance problem in a very large electrical generator. GE's own engineers didn't have a clue.

After several days of study, Steinmetz put an "X" with chalk on the outside of the generator. He instructed the technicians to open the casing at that point and remove a noted number of turns from the stator winding. That fixed the problem. A generator of such a large size costs a considerable amount of money, and Steinmetz priced his work accordingly, $1,000, which was a princely sum in those days.

The GE management was stunned by the amount, and it asked for an itemized bill. Steinmetz responded thus,
1. Marking chalk "X" on side of generator: $1.
2. Knowing where to mark chalk "X": $999.

Today's engineers should have as much courage!

Steinmetz was elected president of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers when he was just thirty-seven. He was awarded honorary degrees from Harvard University (1901) and Union College (1903). He was inducted into the United States National Inventor's Hall of Fame in 1977.[1]

One of Steinmetz's most memorable quotations is as follows:
"Scientific theories need reconstruction every now and then. If they didn't need reconstruction they would be facts, not theories."


  1. Tom Flynn, "Charles Proteus Steinmetz, Inventor," Yonkers History Web Site.
  2. Charles Proteus Steinmetz, German-American mathematician and engineer (1865 - 1923), North Dakota State University Electrical & Computer Engineering Web Site.
  3. Doris Kilbane, "Charles Proteus Steinmetz: Genius, Forethinker," Electronic Design, October 20, 2006, p. 76.
  4. Vaughn D. Martin, "Charles Steinmetz, The Father of Electrical Engineering," Nuts & Volts, Bonus Web Feature, April, 2009, pp. 1-5.
  5. Homer, "The Odyssey," with an English Translation by A.T. Murray, Ph.D., in two volumes (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.; William Heinemann, Ltd., London), 1919.
    And I will tell thee all the wizard wiles of that old man. First he will count the seals, and go over them; but when he has told them all off by fives, and beheld them, he will lay himself down in their midst, as a shepherd among his flocks of sheep. Now so soon as you see him laid to rest, thereafter let your hearts be filled with strength and courage, and do you hold him there despite his striving and struggling to escape. For try he will, and will assume all manner of shapes of all things that move upon the earth, and of water, and of wondrous blazing fire.
  6. Charles P. Steinmetz, "Means For Producing Light," US Patent No. 1,025,932, May 7, 1912.

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