Steinmetz, Charles Proteus

views updated May 23 2018


(b. Breslau, Germany [now Wroclaw, Poland], 9 April 1865;d. Schenectady, New York, 26 October 1923),


Steinmetz’ given name was Karl August Rudolf. He was the only son of Karl Heinrich Steinmetz, a government railway employee, and his first wife, Caroline Neubert. After early education at the local Gymnasium, he entered the University of Breslau, where he remained for five years. During this time, he became an ardent socialist. During this time, he became an ardent socialist. Placed under police surveillance in 1887, he eventually fled to Zurich, shortly before completing the Ph.D. in mathematics, and there studied mechanical engineering.

In 1889 Steinmetz immigrated into the United States and in 1894 became an American citizen, whereupon he took the name Charles Proteus. He never married but in 1905 legally adopted Joseph Le Roy Hayden as his son. Steinmetz received an honorary M.A. from Harvard (1902), and honorary Ph.D. from Union College, and served as president of both the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (1901) and the Illuminating Engineering Society (1915).

Upon entering the United States, Steinmetz was employed as a draftsman by Rudolf Eickemeyer, a prospering manufacturer of motors and machinery and a versatile inventor and pioneer in electrical research. Four years later the newly founded General Electric Company acquired many of Eickemeyer’s electrical patents, along with the services of Steinmetz, who by 1892 had already earned a considerable reputation because of two long papers on the mathematical law of magnetic hysteresis, which was praised by contemporaries as “doing for the magnetic circuit what Ohm did for the electric circuit.” steinmetz’ first textbook on electricity, Theory and Calculation of Alternating Current Phenomena (1897), written with E. J. Berg, described the complex number technique for analyzing alternating-current circuits that he had first presented to the International Electrical Congress in Chicago in 1893. This work played a decisive role in the turn-of-the-century debate between alternating- and direct-current technologies and the technique is still universally used.

To relieve him of administrative duties, Steinmetz was made a consulting engineer at General Electric after 1895. His principal contributions to the advancement of the company in the ensuing twenty-eight years were covered by 195 patents and included the magnetite arc-lamp electrode; two-phase to three-phase transformation; major improvements in motors, generators, and transformers; developments in mercury-arc lighting; and the analysis and design of high-voltage, alternating-current transmission techniques. Transient phenomena in the latter received his particular attention and were explored in a much-publicized, high-voltage “artificial lightning” testing laboratory. He was one of the earliest advocates of atmospheric pollution control, research on solar energy conversion, nationwide electrical networks, electrification of railways, synthetic production of protein, and electric automobiles. While employed by General Electric, Steinmetz also served on the Union College faculty (1903 – 1913), where he created the electrical engineering department and started his transmission-line research.

Apart from his technical achievements, Steinmetz’ unique contribution to the developing electrical engineering profession was his repeated demonstration of the profitability of applying sophisticated mathematical methods to practical problems. Most of his ten technical books were widely used in colleges and had a tremendous influence on curricular development.

Physically small and crippled from birth, like his father and grandfather, Steinmetz had several unusual hobbies and personal idiosyncrasies, about which many legends accumulated. He retained a lifelong interest in socialism; and after the election of a socialist city government in Schenectady in 1911, he served with distinction in several civic positions.


I. Original Works. Steinmetz’ works include Theory and Calculation of Alternating Current Phenomena (New York, 1897), written with E. J. Berg; Theoretical Elements of Electrical Engineering (New York, 1901); General Lectures on Electrical Engineering (New York, 1908), J. L. Hayden, ed.; Theory and Calculation of Transient Electrical Phenomena and Oscillations (New York, 1909); Radiation, Light and Illumination (New York, 1909); Engineering Mathematics (New York, 1911); Elementary Lectures on Electrical Discharges, Waves and Impulses and Other Transients (New York, 1911); Theory and Calculation of Electric Circuits (New York, 1917); and Theory and Calculation of Electric Apparatus (New York, 1917). The above were published as a nine-volume Electrical Engineering Library (New York, 1921).

II. Secondary Literature. See Ernest Caldecott and P. L. Alger, Steinmetz- The Philosopher (Schenectady, N.Y., 1965); J. W. Hammond, Charles ProteusSteinmetz ()New York, 1924); and J. N. Leonard, Loki. The Life of Charles Proteus Steinmetz (New York, 1929).

Robert A. Chipman

Charles Proteus Steinmetz

views updated May 18 2018

Charles Proteus Steinmetz

The German-born American mathematician and electrical engineer Charles Proteus Steinmetz (1865-1923), by devoting himself to industrial research, made fundamental contributions to the development of both electricity and the industrial laboratory.

Charles Steinmetz was born Karl August Rudolf Steinmetz on April 9, 1865, in Breslau. His father worked for the government railway service, and Karl was encouraged to attend the university and pursue his intellectual curiosities. He had been deformed since birth and had lost his mother at the age of one year but found solace and excitement in the affairs of the mind. He entered the university at Breslau in 1883 and specialized in mathematics and the physical sciences. He also read widely in economics and politics, and in 1884 he associated himself with the Socialist party in Breslau. As he pursued his scientific education, he also continued his political activities, a pattern he was to continue throughout his life.

As ghost editor of the Breslau Socialist newspaper, People's Voice, Steinmetz attracted the attention of the police. In 1888, just as he had finished the work for his doctor's degree, he learned of plans for his arrest and fled to Switzerland. He never received his degree. He emigrated to the United States in 1889.

Steinmetz went to work in Yonkers, N.Y., for the electrical inventor Rudolph Eickemeyer, who put him to the task of improving alternating-current devices. In the course of this work he tackled the problem of hysteresis, or the loss of efficiency in electric motors due to alternating magnetism. There was some disagreement among electrical engineers whether such a loss even existed, and none had ever been able to measure it. Working from known data, Steinmetz applied mathematics of a very high level not only to demonstrate that hysteresis existed but to measure its exact effect in any given case. In 1892 he read two papers on the subject to the American Institute of Electrical Engineers.

One result of Steinmetz's growing reputation was his employment by General Electric Company in its consulting department. GE was then pioneering in the establishment of industrial research in the United States. The hiring of a mathematician of Steinmetz's caliber was thus a sign of the firm's growing recognition of the fact that it could not depend indefinitely upon buying patents that were independently and randomly arrived at but would have to begin a systematic search for innovation within the firm itself. He worked first at Lynn, Mass., but soon he was moved to the head plant at Schenectady, N.Y., and given the designation of consulting engineer. This position left him comparatively free to pursue his own researches into electrical phenomena.

In his work for GE, Steinmetz applied his unique grasp of mathematics to electrical problems. He preferred not to be tied too closely to the ongoing work of the research laboratory but continued to work on practical as well as theoretical problems: batteries, incandescent and arc lights, and the artificial propagation of lightning in the laboratory all received his attention. This last success, with its giant spark crackling across the laboratory, had a dramatic impact upon a public already convinced that science was a fertile source of "miracles."

Throughout these years Steinmetz maintained his interest in public service and refused to allow his experiments, scientific writing, and teaching responsibilities at Union University to prevent him from discharging his duties as a citizen. He followed the Russian Revolution of 1917 with interest and in 1922 wrote to Lenin offering his services to the Soviet Union. Steinmetz was president of Schenectady's school board (1912-1923) and common council (1916-1923). In 1922 he ran unsuccessfully for the office of state engineer on the Socialist and Farmer-Labor tickets. He died in Schenectady on Oct. 26, 1923.

Further Reading

There are several biographies of Steinmetz, including John T. Broderick, Steinmetz and His Discoveries (1924); John E. Hammond, Charles Proteus Steinmetz: A Biography (1924); and Jonathan N. Leonard, Loki: The Life of Charles Proteus Steinmetz (1929), the last a more popular work. The technical context can be found in Kendall Birr, Pioneering in Industrial Research: The Story of the General Electric Research Laboratory (1957).

Additional Sources

Garlin, Sender, Three American radicals: John Swinton, crusading editor: Charles P. Steinmetz, scientist and socialist: William Dean Howells and the Haymarket Era, Boulder: Westview Press, 1991.

Kline, Ronald R., Steinmetz: engineer and socialist, Baltimore:Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992. □

Charles Proteus Steinmetz

views updated May 29 2018

Charles Proteus Steinmetz


Polish-American engineer who made significant contributions to the field of electrical engineering. Steinmetz studied in Germany but was forced to leave due to his socialist activities. Relocating to the United States, he subsequently developed lightning arrestors for electrical transmission lines, arrived at a law for determining magnetic hysteresis, and invented a simple notation for mathematically describing alternating current circuits. Steinmetz consulted for General Electric for many years before becoming a professor at Union College in 1902.

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