April 9, 1865, is the birthdate of Charles Proteus Steinmetz, the Polish-born mathematician and electrical engineer who arrived in the United States at just the right moment to make a number of seminal contributions to the harnessing of electricity. Though his name is less well-known than Thomas Edison’s, Steinmetz played a role no less important in the development of electric current as an industrial tool, and it is his pioneering work in mastering alternating current (though not his alone) that led to that system’s becoming the standard in the U.S., even as Edison was championing direct current.
Karl August Rudolph Steinmetz was born in Breslau, Silesia (today Wroclaw, in Poland). His father, Karl Heinrich Steinmetz, worked for the Prussian government railway company; his mother was the former Caroline Neubert. Like his father and his father’s father, Karl August was born suffering from dwarfism and severe spinal curvature. His height never exceeded 1.22 meters (four feet), and he had a hunched back.
Steinmetz attended the Johannes Gymnasium and in 1883 enrolled in the University of Breslau. It was there that he became seriously involved in a socialist student organization. In 1887, after the organization was banned by the state, Steinmetz, who edited its student newspaper, came under police surveillance.
Flight to New York
Although he was just short of earning his doctorate, Steinmetz decided to leave the country rather than risk arrest. He fled, first to Zurich and then, in 1889, to New York – where immigration officials almost sent him back to Europe for being physically unfit. Fortunately they decided to believe the friend who accompanied him, who testified that the small man was possessed with the brain of a genius.
Once in the U.S., Steinmetz changed his given name to “Charles” and formally adopted as his middle name “Proteus,” a nickname he had received at university referring to a sea-god in Greek mythology who is able to change shape at will. His first job in America was at the Osterheld & Eickemeyer engineering firm, in Yonkers, New York. There he studied and developed an understanding of hysteresis, by which electromagnetic circuits lose power steadily, in the form of heat. Steinmetz’s great achievement was to develop the mathematical formulae that made it possible to quantify what hysteresis, as well as other electrical phenomena, would be under different conditions. He also made major advances in understanding electrical transients – short-term events like lightning – which was key to protecting power lines from the potential damage of electrical storms, and steady-state dynamics.
A socialist at General Electric
Steinmetz’s genius was recognized sufficiently that the newly organized General Electric in 1893 bought Osterheld & Eickemeyer so as to become the owner of Steinmetz’s patents and gain his services as a consultant. The following year, he moved to Schenectady, New York, where he worked for GE until nearly the end of his life, by which time he had acquired more than 200 patents; he was also on the faculty of Union College.
Steinmetz remained an active socialist in Schenectady, where he served as school board president when the socialist George Lunn was elected mayor in 1911. Together, the two introduced numerous reforms and innovations to the city, including longer school hours and free textbooks for pupils.
He consciously avoided marrying, so as not to pass on his deformity to yet another generation, but after building himself a large house, he invited a newly married student, Joseph LeRoy Hayden, and his wife to come live with him. Eventually he would adopt Hayden as his legal son.
One legendary Steinmetz tale involves his being called in by Henry Ford to analyze why a giant generator had failed. After observing the generator for two full days and nights, he put a chalk mark on it indicating where the problem was situated, and explained what needed to be done. He then presented Ford with a bill for $10,000. Ford, taken aback by the sum, asked Steinmetz to itemize the bill. Steinmetz did just that, and soon handed him a paper on which he had written: 1. Making chalk mark: $1. 2. Knowing where to make chalk mark: $9,999. Ford paid up.
Charles Proteus Steinmetz died in his sleep on October 26, 1923, aged 58.