He was called the Wizard of Schenectady, and counted as friends Albert Einstein, Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison. He stood little more than 120 centimetres tall, his body contorted by a hump caused by a congenital deformity known as abnormal kyphosis, an extreme curvature of the upper spine. He was one of the greatest mathematicians and electrical engineers of his time, whose discoveries continue to resonate today.
Charles Proteus Steinmetz was born Karl August Rudolph Steinmetz on April 9, 1865. He Americanised his name when he emigrated to the United States in 1889. He chose Proteus as his middle name, derived from a nickname bestowed him in Germany.
Steinmetz went to work for a small electrical firm in New York, and his experiments on power losses in the magnetic materials used in machinery led to his first important work, the law of hysteresis, which deals with the power loss that occurs in electrical devices when magnetic action is converted to unusable heat. His discovery, published in 1892, allowed engineers to calculate and minimise losses of electric power owing to magnetism and change their designs accordingly.
More important was his development of a practical method for making mathematical calculations when dealing with alternating-current circuits. Steinmetz formulated a symbolic method of calculating alternating-current phenomena, which simplified an extremely complicated field so that average engineers could work in it.
This development was largely responsible for the rapid progress made in the commercial introduction of alternating-current apparatus.
In 1893, the newly formed General Electric Company, based in Schenectady, New York, bought Steinmetz’s employer, primarily for its patents, but Steinmetz was considered one of its major assets.
There is a story about Steinmetz which first appeared in Life magazine in 1965. Jack B. Scott wrote to tell of his father’s encounter with the Wizard of Schenectady at Henry Ford’s factory in Dearborn, Michigan.
Ford’s engineers couldn’t solve the problems they were having with a gigantic generator, so Scott Senior asked GE to send Steinmetz to the plant. Upon arriving, Steinmetz asked for a notebook, pencil and cot. He listened to the generator and made notes for two days and nights.
On the second night, he asked for a ladder, climbed up the generator, and made a chalk mark on its side. Then he told Ford’s engineers to remove a plate at the mark and replace sixteen windings from the field coil. They did, and the generator performed to perfection.
Ford was thrilled, until he got an invoice from GE for $10,000. He asked for an itemised bill.
Steinmetz responded personally to Ford’s request with the following:
“Making chalk mark on generator: $1.
“Knowing where to make mark $9,999.”
Ford paid the bill.
Steinmetz died on October 26, 1923.
Jeff Glorfeld is a former senior editor of The Age newspaper in Australia, and is now a freelance journalist based in California, US.
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