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Charles Proteus Steinmetz

pioneer of alternating current

Charles P. Steinmetz

Karl August Rudolf Steinmetz was born in Breslau, Prussia (now Wroclaw, Poland), on April 9, 1865, the only son of Karl Heinrich Steinmetz, a government railway employee, and his first wife, Caroline Neubert. His early school performance was poor, but by the time he was ten he had made a turnaround and was one of the school’s brightest pupils. He later attended the University of Breslau, from which he earned his Ph.D. in 1888.

Steinmetz first became active in the Socialist movement in college. That involvement became potentially dangerous after Kaiser Wilhelm II assumed the throne, so Steinmetz fled to Zurich, Switzerland, where he took courses in electrical engineering and discovered his passion for the field. From Zurich he emigrated to the United States. Arriving at Ellis Island on June 1, 1889, Steinmetz was initially refused entry into the country due to being physically deformed (he only stood about four feet tall and had a pronounced humpback), but an American friend he was traveling with convinced the immigration official that Steinmetz was a rich mathematician and he was granted immigrant status. It was at this time that Steinmetz Americanized his name to Charles Proteus, taking the middle name because it was the nickname his professors in Germany had affectionately bestowed upon him in recognition of the shape-shifting sea god. In Greek mythology, Proteus was a cave-dwelling prophetic old man who always returned to his human form, that of a hunchback, and Steinmetz thoroughly enjoyed the comparison.

Soon after arriving in New York City, Steinmetz got a job with Eickemeyer and Osterheld, a small electrical firm in Yonkers, where he quickly became a valuable asset. When Elisha Otis needed a more powerful motor to lift his elevator to higher floors, Steinmetz designed the motor. When Stephen Field, nephew of Cyrus Field of Atlantic Cable fame, approached Eickenmeyer with a proposal to run trolley cars by electricity using alternating current, Steinmetz was called upon. It was while working on the latter project that Steinmetz developed the theory that made him famous. When the transfer from direct current to alternating current was made, there was a delay that, though slight, caused the motor to overheat. Steinmetz solved the problem mathematically, and his solution became known as the “Law of Hysteresis” or “Steinmetz’s Law.” He published his theory in The Electrical Engineer on December 8, 1891, 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.

Having solved a problem that had been vexing every previous electrical innovator made Steinmetz a celebrity in his field. Thomas Edison tried to lure him to his recently established General Electric labotatory, but Steinmetz refused to leave Eickemeyer and Osterheld. Edison did end up getting Steinmetz, however, by having General Electric buy Eickemeyer and Osterheld and all of its patents. Steinmetz spent ten years with the General Electric Company, first in Lynn, Massachusetts, and then Schenectady, New York. While there, he and his team developed the world's first "system of distribution by alternating current," which was patented on January 29, 1895. His team also worked to improve Edison's incandescent bulb, and contributed significantly to the development of the x-ray machine and the vacuum tube.

Steinmetz retired from General Electric in 1902 in order to become Chairman of the Department of Electrical Engineering at Union College (in Schenectady), a position he held until 1913. During his tenure he helped the college become one of the best electrical engineering schools 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 a salary 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.

Despite being retired, Steinmetz never completely abandoned his work with electricity and its many various applications. After his vacation house was damaged by lightning in 1921, he returned to General Electric in order to construct a machine that would allow him to study lightning and how it inflicts its damage. In March of 1922, reporters were invited to General Electric and gathered before a model village that Steinmetz had constructed. In a noisy and explosive demonstration witnessed by Edison himself, Steinmetz switched on a 120,000-volt generator that produced lighting bolts that splintered large blocks of wood, decimated the steeple on a white chapel, and split a miniature tree. That work led to measures that are still used to protect power equipment from lightning strikes.

Despite his very short stature, Steinmetz remained a giant in his field, as well as to the people of Schenectady, until his death, which came at his home on October 26, 1932. Fearful of passing on his deformity, he never married. He did, however, share his large home, with former lab assistant Joseph Hayden and his wife for many years. The Hayden's raised three children in Steinmetz's home, much to Steinmetz's delight.

Edison Tech Center
Smithsonian Magazine
Yonkers Historical Society

Kaiser Wilhelm II
Elisha Otis
Thomas Edison

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This page was last updated on October 26, 2017.