Charles Proteus Steinmetz


Charles Proteus Steinmetz (1865 – 1923) was a mathematician and electrical engineer known as the Wizard of Schenectady. He fostered the development of alternating current that made possible the expansion of the electric power industry in the US, formulating mathematical theories for engineers.

He made ground-breaking discoveries in the understanding of hysteresis (the lag time when magnetizing a ferromagnetic material) that enabled engineers to design better electromagnetic apparatus equipment, especially electric motors for use in industry.

Steinmetz was born into a Jewish family in Silesia (modern day Poland). He suffered from dwarfism, hunchback, and hip dysplasia, as did his father and grandfather. As a boy, he attended Johannes Gymnasium and astonished his teachers with his proficiency in mathematics and physics. He went on to the University of Breslau to begin work on his undergraduate degree in 1883. He was on the verge of finishing his doctorate in 1888 when he came under investigation by the German police for activities on behalf of a socialist university group and articles he had written for a local socialist newspaper.

As socialist meetings and press had been banned in Germany, Steinmetz fled to Zürich in 1888 to escape possible arrest. Faced with an expiring visa, he emigrated to the United States in 1889. He changed his first name to Charles in order to sound more American and chose the middle name Proteus after a childhood taunt given to him by classmates. Proteus was a wise hunchbacked character from the ‘Odyssey’ who knew many secrets and he felt it suited him.

Cornell University Professor Ronald R. Kline, the author of ‘Steinmetz: Engineer and Socialist,’ contended that other factors were more directly involved in Steinmetz’s decision to leave his homeland, such as the fact that he was in arrears with his tuition at the University of Breslau and that life at home with his father, stepmother, and their daughters was full of tension. Despite his earlier efforts and interest in socialism, by 1922 Steinmetz concluded that socialism would never work in the States because the country lacked a ‘powerful, centralized government of competent men, remaining continuously in office’ and because ‘only a small percentage of Americans accept this viewpoint today.’

Shortly after arriving in the U.S., Steinmetz went to work for inventor Rudolf Eickemeyer in Yonkers, New York, and published in the field of magnetic hysteresis, which gave him world-wide professional recognition. Eickemeyer’s firm developed transformers for use in the transmission of electrical power among many other mechanical and electrical devices. In 1893 Eickemeyer’s company was bought by the newly formed General Electric Company, and Steinmetz quickly became known as the engineering wizard in GE’s engineering community.

His work revolutionized alternating current (AC) circuit theory and analysis, which had been carried out using complex, time-consuming calculus-based methods. In the groundbreaking paper, ‘Complex Quantities and Their Use in Electrical Engineering,’ presented at a 1893 meeting of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (AIEE), Steinmetz simplified these complicated methods to ‘a simple problem of algebra.’ His seminal books and many other AIEE papers ‘taught a whole generation of engineers how to deal with AC phenomena.’

Steinmetz also made greater strides to the understanding of lightning phenomena. He undertook a systematic study of it, resulting in experiments of man-made lightning in the laboratory, and was called the ‘forger of thunderbolts,’ being the first to create artificial lightning in his football field-sized laboratory and high towers built at General Electric, using 120,000 volt generators. He erected a lightning tower to attract lightning and studied the patterns and effects of lightning resulting in several theories and ideas.

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