CHARLES PROTEUS STEINMETZ: THE

WIZARD OF GENERAL ELECTRIC: PART II


Dick Reiman, Historian


Rudolph Eickemeyer had designed motors for an elevator company later to be known as "Otis," a single-phase dc motor with compensated windings and a magnetic bridge which was to uncover the secrets of magneticism in iron and steel. How fortunate for Charles Steinmetz (and for us) that Eickemeyer hired him and turned him loose to discover new ways to improve electrical engineering. The law of hysterisis which Steinmetz had formulated led to perfection of the single and three-phase induction motor. He also made a contribution to the AIEE paper by Thorburn Reid on "The Armature Reaction of Alternators in 1890. Steinmetz critized the theory of Reid's paper because it did not include the effects of third harmonics. Reid replied that this would make the theory too complicated. Steinmetz quietly analyzed the subject and later presented his first paper, including the third harmonic, before the AIEE. Reid did not take offense, the two became the best of friends, and the science of electrical engineering was advanced.

Steinmetz later reflected upon his three most important achievements: his investigation of magnetism, his development of a practical method of making calculations with alternating current systems, and his general study and theory of electrical transients. With the development of the power of Niagara Falls, ac generation, transmission, and distribution were about to expand, but the ac theory was so hopelessly complex that design and analysis had to be based on empirical and graphic methods. Steinmetz's mathematical background led him to complex numbers as a means of reducing the ac theory to practical calculations. It gave the alternating current a single numerical value just as in direct current, eliminated the function of time and the calculations to simple algebra. The task of explaining the method proved to be difficult and he then published three papers on "theory", "theory and practice", and "practice". He subsequently published a textbook on "Alternating Current Phenomena" and lectured graduate students at Union College. Eventually, his methods were understood and became universally adopted. Steinmetz never completed the study of electrical transients, but his research at General Electric led to understanding of effects of lightning on ac systems, improvement of lightning arrestors, and protection systems.

E. W. Rice Jr. led the formation of the General Electric Company with the union of the Edison General Electric Company of New York and the Thompson-Houston Electric Company of Lynn, Massachusetts. Norton P. Otis, one of the founders of the Otis Elevator Company, told GE that Eickemeyer's patents and inventions were invaluable to their future. GE also wanted the services of the youthful mathematical master, Charles P. Steinmetz. Steinmetz was to teach the GE engineers his new methods of ac system calculations, improve their transformer design practice, and apply his knowledge of magnetism to motors and generators. In 1901, he improved the carbon arc lamp and later the mercury lamp, including the development of an ac rectifier so that magnetic arc lamps, which work on dc, could be used in ac systems. The rectifier also proved to be of great use in charging storage batteries from ac systems. In 1908 Steinmetz and associates were awarded the Franklin Institute's certificate of merit in recognition of his work on the magnetic arc lamp.

In 1901 Steinmetz served as President of the AIEE, just nine years after his paper of hysterisis. In June 1902 he received a degree of master of arts from Harvard University and recognition as the "foremost electrical engineer in the United States." In 1903 Union College in Schenectady conferred the degree of doctor of philosophy and invited him to become a member of its faculty. The publishing of his thesis from Breslau, his mathematical and engineering contributions all established for him the honor of a doctorate that had been denied him in Germany.

At General Electric, Steinmetz became a consultant and participated as the "supreme court" of solving problems. He developed and did research in a high voltage laboratory and opened the way for even higher voltage transmission systems. F. J. Berg, who worked as his assistant at GE, said that Steinmetz could take any equation up to the third degree and visualize it out in space. In 1894 Steinmetz completed his naturalization papers and became a citizen of the adopted country that he loved. In 1923, shortly before his death, he predicted the rise of the biological scientist who would develop vegetation which would collect sunlight to supply future energy needs and produce protein plants for feeding future populations.