Engineering Hall of Fame

Charles P. Steinmetz
The accomplishments and life of C.P. Steinmetz: April 9, 1865, - October 26, 1923

Charles P. Steinmetz: a legend and pioneer...

C.P. Steinmetz stands with Thomas Edison and Elihu Thomson as one of the founding fathers of electricity. He was a true engineer's engineer -earning fame and success through the amazing results of his work and genius and not by flamboyant personality.
Dr. Steinmetz's tale of escape from Prussia, battle with polio, and rise to fame is a classic story of survival and success.

Awards: AIEE Eliot Cresson Gold Medal, and many more
Schools:
University of Breslau, Union College
Publications: Created many papers for many journals over his life time. His most famous paper was on the theory of hystereris. This paper gained the attention of the AIEE and that led to his success.

Key Points:
-One of the Pioneers of AC Power
-The founder of the GE Research Lab (now GE Global Research)
-Distinguished Professor at Union College

-Helped many researchers achieve success on numerous technologies without claiming credit or collecting many patents for himself
-A believer in socialism as a solution to the problems of the day

-Became an icon as the star engineer of General Electric in the Alternating Current Age

Concise Biography:

Charles Proteus Steinmetz (April 9, 1865, - October 26, 1923) was born in Breslau, Prussia (part of Germany at the time) (now known as Wroclaw, Poland). He developed theories for alternating current that made possible the expansion of the electric power industry in the United States.

Steinmetz studied at the University of Breslau (Uniwersytet Wroclawski or Universität Breslau) from 1883-1888. After involvement with a socialist newspaper he was under suspicion by the government, then ruled by Kaiser Wilhelm II. He fled the country to Zurich. From Zurich he immigrated to New York City where he first worked for Rudolph Eickemeyer in Yonkers. They spoke the same dialect of Germany and got along well from the start. Steinmetz published a paper on magnetic hysteresis which became noticed by the AIEE (American Institute of Electrical Engineers). E.W. Rice Jr. of General Electric noticed Steinmetz as well and tried to get him to join General Electric.

 

Dr. Steinmetz and Thomas Alva Edison 1922


An early AC generator designed by Elihu Thomson and Steinmetz 1895 (Folsom, CA)


Hysteresis graphed (The discovery that got him noticed)

Left to Right: Ernst Julius Berg, S. Benedict, Albert Einstein, guy who looks like Tesla but is probably not, C.P. Steinmetz, A. N. Goldsmith, A. Malsin, Irving Langmuir.
New Brunswick, NJ 1921

At his camp along the Mohawk River just outside of Schenectady (towards Rotterdam Junction)

 

Steinmetz's loyalty to Eickemeyer was strong and he refused to leave despite being interested in General Electric. Legend has it that management of GE then bought Eickemeyer's company in order to get Steinmetz, however GE was also interested in Eickmeyers transformer patents. He then moved to Lynn, Massachusetts where he worked with Thomson in 1893. They developed the some of the world's first 3 phase electrical systems. Steinmetz, Louis Bell and Thomson developed the first commercial 3 phase AC power systems. A former Edison employee C.S. Bradley invented the first 3 phase AC generator, but it was Steinmetz who understood AC systems mathematically and could improve anything he worked on. The 3 phase system won out in the end over Westinghouse's 2 phase system.

After Lynn, MA he moved to Schenectady, New York where a new GE plant had been set up. Steinmetz became a professor at Union College. He suggested the establishment of the GE Research Laboratory in order to be able to compete with the Germans who where trying to develop a better incandescent bulb than Edison's. The lab quickly produced many other types of inventions including W. Coolidge's x-ray and Albert Hull's Vacuum tube.

Steinmetz taught Electrical Engineering and Electrophysics at Union College. His academic style was reflected in his willingness to help any of the other engineers at the lab, as well as students. He has fewer patents than others but this is probably due to the fact that he allowed others to get the final credit and patents. He did not seek fame or power the way Edison and Tesla did. Edison and Steinmetz may have worked for the same company, but they were quite different in personality. Edison stuck to DC while Steinmetz worked on the most difficult problems of AC power.

Steinmetz worked on the world's first monocyclic power distribution system in Mechanicville, New York. Click the link to learn more about it:

Steinmetz and Radio:

At Union College Steinmetz was Chairman of the Department of Electrical Engineering from 1902-1913. He was probably involved in the creation of radio station 2XQ in 1913 or 1915. On 10/14/1920 there was a historic broadcast as students broadcast a concert by "Radio Telephone". Some claim this was the first scheduled program broadcast for public entertainment in the US (before KDKA on November 2nd 1920.)

Charles Steinmetz lived on Wendell Rd. in a house he designed. He had a green house where he kept "ugly" plants and animals. He would spend a lot of time in his wood cabin at the banks of the Mohawk River.

Shortly after a trip to California, Steinmetz died in his home in 1923.

To read a longer biography see the lower part of this webpage.

Steinmetz vs. Tesla, an ongoing debate:

In their day, Steinmetz and Nikola Tesla were two of the most famous people in the world. Tesla was more flamboyant and more often gave public demonstrations of his wizardry, which prompted more biographies than was the case for Steinmetz. That has continued to this day, whereas recollection and retelling of the work of Steinmetz became somewhat rare, to the point where he is no longer widely known to average lay person. In Schenectady and some electrical engineering circles Steinmetz's contributions are well known. He now remains a gem yet to be discovered by mainstream media.

-by the Edison Tech Center
For Sources see the bottom of this page

 

 

 

Videos below will appear blank if your internet server has blocked YouTube. GE and other companies have blocked YouTube.

 

C.P. Steinmetz the Man Who Made Lightning (YouTube Video)

 

About C.P. Steinmetz before General Electric

Steinmetz as a consultant:

Here's an interesting anecdote, probably apochrophal, as told by Charles M. Vest, President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, during commencement on June 4th, 1999. (http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/nr/1999/vestspeech.html)

In the early years of this century, Steinmetz was brought to GE's facilities in Schenectady, New York. GE had encountered a performance problem with one of their huge electrical generators and had been absolutely unable to correct it. Steinmetz, a genius in his understanding of electromagnetic phenomena, was brought in as a consultant -- not a very common occurrence in those days, as it would be now.

Steinmetz also found the problem difficult to diagnose, but for some days he closeted himself with the generator, its engineering drawings, paper and pencil. At the end of this period, he emerged, confident that he knew how to correct the problem.

After he departed, GE's engineers found a large "X" marked with chalk on the side of the generator casing. There also was a note instructing them to cut the casing open at that location and remove so many turns of wire from the stator. The generator would then function properly.
And indeed it did.

Steinmetz was asked what his fee would be. Having no idea in the world what was appropriate, he replied with the absolutely unheard of answer that his fee was $1000.

Stunned, the GE bureaucracy then required him to submit a formally itemized invoice.
They soon received it. It included two items:
1. Marking chalk "X" on side of generator: $1.
2. Knowing where to mark chalk "X": $999.

END

 

The first 3-phase AC powerhouse in North America used GE generators designed with Steinmetz's expertise. (Redlands, California 1893)

Steinmetz and young Einstein 1921
This photo was altered to exclude the other 21 people in the photo.

AUDIO FILES: Click the link to listen


Henry Ford and Steinmetz:
Henry Ford Visits Steinmetz and is made to wait until he finishes reading his adopted children a book, story is told by Kolin Hagar, interview by Larry Hart. Kolin Hager is the first U.S. newscaster at WGY Radio Station.

Steinmetz fixes a Westinghouse Generator: Listen to the above audio file and this story starts from the middle.

At GE Schenectady


Above: Steinmetz and Thomas Edison examine materials and insulators after artificial lightning strikes. 1922. Steinmetz and Edison did not regularly work together.

Above: Breslau, Prussia (Wroclaw, Poland) where Steinmetz was born and raised. In the 1940s almost all of the residents of Germanic (Prussian) decent had fled, were executed, or sent to the Gulag. Over 100,000 ethnic Poles were brought in from Lviv (Lwow), Ukraine to fill the empty city. If Prussia existed today Steinmetz would be a national hero.

Above: Steinmetz's metal halide lamp patent, the arc path is illustrated with the mercury vapor shown by the cool colored plasma.

Steinmetz invented the metal halide lamp in 1912. This lamp is now used in almost every town and city on the planet. Steinmetz's prototype had problems with maintaining a constant temperature, so it shifted randomly in color from cool blues to warm whites. It wasn't until the 1960's that the lamp became reliable when it was produced in a high pressure form. Learn more about the Metal Halide Lamp >

 

 

 

1904 - Steinmetz with Corinne Hayden and an unidentified couple on his porch at Wendell Ave. (next to Union College today)

Extended Biography:

The following is from

"MEN OF GENERAL ELECTRIC,
Biographical Sketches of Some Outstanding General Electric Men"

Charles Proteus Steinmetz, mathematician and electrical engineer was born in Breslau, Germany, where his father was employed as a lithographer in the railroad office. His given name, which he used for about the first twenty-five years of his life, was Karl August Rudolf, bit in his application for American citizenship he Anglicized his first name to Charles and substituted for the other two the name Proteus, a nickname given him when he joined the student mathematical society in Breslau. Although deformed from birth, he was a normally inquisitive, mischievous boy but badly spoiled by his grandmother, who mothered the family after the death of Charles' mother when he was a year old.

It was evident early in his school career that he had a keen mind, and when he had completed the course in the gymnasium his father willingly sent him to the University of Breslau instead of apprenticing him to a trade. He entered the university in 1883. He was decidedly versatile and had an astonishing capacity for study. During his six years at the university he never missed a class, took a prodigious number of notes, and even undertook independent investigations at home. From the very first he selected difficult technical subjects. Beginning with mathematics and astronomy he expanded his studies so that in his sixth year he was taking theoretical physics, chemistry, electrical engineering, specialized work in higher mathematics and medicine. In addition, he was a student of economics and kept up his reading of the classics.

About 1884 he joined the student Socialist group and in the course of the succeeding four years became most active serving for a time as ghost editor of the People's Voice, published by the Socialists at Breslau. This proved his undoing, for as a result of a most daring editorial published in 1888, he had to flee from Germany to avoid arrest and imprisonment just as he had completed his university work and his thesis for his doctor's degree, which was never conferred upon him. Fleeing to Switzerland, where he lived a year in Zurich in straitened circumstances, he spent six months in attendance at the Polytechnic School and occasionally wrote an article on some phase of electrical engineering for a German technical journal.

In the late spring of 1889, on the spur of the moment, he sailed to the United States financed by a student friend who accompanied him. He landed in New York on June 1 and within two weeks found employment as a draftsman for Rudolph Eickemeyer at Yonkers, New York, to whom he had gone with a letter of introduction. Eickemeyer, who was then engaged in research and in the development of electrical machinery, established him in an experimental laboratory of his own. Here he applied himself earnestly not only to the electrical problems given him but also in characteristic fashion, to the problems of Americanizing himself. He mastered the language, applied for citizenship and even joined the American Institute of Electrical Engineers and the New York (later American) Mathematical Society.

At the time, electrical engineers were concerned with reducing the losses of efficiency in electrical apparatus due to alternating magnetism (hysteresis). The laws of this power loss were entirely unknown and many engineers doubted its existence. Steinmetz, however, having been given the task of calculating and designing an alternating-current commutator motor and wishing to calculate the hysteresis loss, derived the law of hysteresis mathematically from existing data. He followed this with an elaborate series of tests on any and every sample of iron obtainable to prove the law and simplify its application and in 1892 read two papers on the subject before the American Institute of Electrical Engineers.

Shortly after the organization of the General Electric Company in 1892 he joined the staff of the Calculating Department and went first to Lynn, Massachusetts and then to Schenectady, New York. After completing his second year with the Company he was made consulting engineer, a position he held throughout the rest of his life.

While he was engaged in his studies of magnetism at Yonkers he had begun studies of alternating electric current phenomena, which were then little understood and most complex. Through the application of pure mathematics involving a degree of intricate work bewildering to the layman, he found a mathematical method of reducing the alternating-current theory to a basis pf practical calculation, and presented a rather complicated outline of the new method to the International Electrical Congress in session at Chicago, Illinois, in 1893. He found himself in unapproachable intellectual solitude however, for practically no one could understand his theory or use his method. Gradually however, through the publication of several textbooks he brought about a clear understanding of his symbolic method, which is now universally used in alternating-current calculations.

His third and last great research undertaking had to do with the phenomena which are centered in lightning. In an effort to learn more about lightning, Steinmetz began a systematic study of it, publishing the dramatic experiments yielding man-made lightning in the laboratory.

In addition to his consulting work and his writing, he was professor of electrical engineering, 1902-1913 and professor of electrophysics, 1913 to 1923 at Union University, Schenectady, New York, and lectured on electrical subjects throughout the country. He served on the Board of Education of Schenectady, of which he was president for two terms, and on the Common Council. The numerous honors conferred on him included the presidency of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, 1901 to 1902, the award of the Elliott Cresson Gold Medal, made by the Franklin Institute, Philadelphia and membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society. He patented a large number of inventions, many of them basic, and wrote several books, among them Theory and Calculation of Transient Electric Phenomena and Oscillations (1909); General Lectures on Electrical Engineering (copyright 1908), compiled and edited by J. L. Hayden; Radiation, Light and Illumination (1909); and Elementary Lectures on Electric Discharges, Waves and Impulses, and Other Transients (1911), all of which went through several editions.

He never married but legally adopted as his son and heir Joseph Le Roy Hayden, who survived him.

Below: video of Steinmetz's 1914 electric car:

 

 

Books on Steinmetz:

"Steinmetz in Schenectady" by Larry Hart(we sell this, Contact Us)
"The Life of Steinmetz
" by Jonathan Leonard (out of print)
"The Man Who Tamed Lightning" by Floyd Miller (out of print)
"Men and Volts the Story of General Electric" by John Winthrop Hammond (out of print)
"Workshop of Engineers" by Floyd Miller (out of print)

Electrical Engineering Library: Visit the Edison Tech Center to see our collection of out-of-print books on Steinmetz

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Sources:
"Men and Volts" by John Hammond
"Workshop of Engineers" by John Miller
"Interview with George Wise" - video interview with historian George Wise. Edison Tech Center

Photos:

General Electric Company (various photographers unknown),
Edison Tech Center
Hawkins Electrical Guide 1912
The Schenectady Museum

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