CHARLES PROTEUS STEINMETZ:

THE WIZARD OF GENERAL ELECTRIC

PART I


Dick Reiman, Historian




Charles P. Steinmetz was born in Breslau, Germany (now Poland) on April 9, 1865 and was christened Carl August Rudolph Steinmetz. After coming to America and wanting to be "Americanized" he changed his name to Charles Proteus (a nickname from student days). He was raised in the Germany of Bismark where counter political thought from groups such as "socialists" were vigorously suppressed. His father, Carl Heinrich Steinmetz was a railroad lithographer and was a congenial comrade to his son. To those growing up in Breslau, "Going to America" was both a mystical adventure and a dream. Charles was physically handicapped by a deformed left leg, humped back, and miniature stature which he inherited from his father's genes; but he was compensated by a brilliant mind, fabulous memory, congenial personality, intensity, and a great zest for life. He never married, but had "acquired" a family by adopting a young engineer, J. L. Hayden, who later married and lived in the house with his wife and children that Charles had built for them. He loved children and was loved by them.

In his studies in preparatory school and later at the university in Breslau, Steinmetz showed great aptitude for abstract visualization and use of symbols; he was therefore a first-rate mathematician and scientist. He applied the symbolism to simplify complicated problems like analysis techniques used in alternating current system analysis, and led the way in taking electrical engineering from an empirical approach to an analytical one. This was the great need of his time and he supplied the methods. An example of his mind and memory was his memorization of the logarithmic tables which he could manipulate mentally to solve problems in a few seconds. He was fascinated with the study of electricity, but Charles's courses in Breslau were short on detail and completely lacking in the applied and practical. He did not see a transformer until he came to America.

Charles P. Steinmetz placed high priority on helping his fellow man, and this led him during his student days to embrace socialism, which was the rage among students. The movement was supported in part by the teachers, but opposed by Bismark's police. He was warned to desist his political activities and got word that he was to be arrested just as he had finished his doctoral thesis and was to be honored by the university. He fled to Switzerland without being able to tell his family. Later, when the Kaiser succeeded Bismark in power, he adopted most of the Socialists's reform. The Swiss did not treat student radicals kindly, and when his friend Oscar Asmussen suggested going to America, Steinmetz agreed. Asmussen had a rich uncle in America, and this wealth supplied their tickets. A custom official doubted Charles's qualifications to be a valued citizen, based on his inability to speak English, being a cripple, and having no money. Asmussen interceded, offering to take care of Steinmetz until he was on his own, and by this slim chance, America acquired one of its most brilliant electrical engineers.

In Yonkers, New York, Charles met a fellow German who had also fled to America (from repression of those who participated in the reform movement of 1848), an inventor and electrical engineer - Rudolph Eickemeyer, who had invented hat-making machinery and had a factory in Yonkers. Eickemeyer wanted to expand into electrical motors and generators, a brand new field in 1889. These were designed by empirical methods, and Eickemeyer thought that he would let Steinmetz experiment with the electrical laws and discover data which could be used in design. Eickemeyer had also invented a magnetic bridge which Steinmetz could use in his research. The magnetic properties of iron and steel were studied and Steinmetz expanded on works by Ewing and Gishert Kapp to discover the laws of hysteresis. The problem was to minimize the ac power loss in iron in order to make efficient ac motors and generators. When alternating current reverses, poles reverse, and the delay in the change is called hysteresis. Roughly, every time the magnetic flux induced by the alternating current doubles, the hysteresis loss triples. If lower loss iron or steel could be found, the losses would be reduced, and electrical engineers can determine the amount of current to magnetize the iron or steel. Steinmetz used his mathematical background and the magnetic bridge to establish a fundamental law of magnetism. His findings were published in the AIEE Electrical Engineer on January 19 and September 27, 1892. The law was of immediate commercial importance. It was just three years since he had landed in America, and Steinmetz was famous at age 27 in engineering circles.

In Part II, Steinmetz is "acquired" by General Electric and becomes their consultant.