Charles Proteus Steinmetz

Charles Proteus Steinmetz (born Karl August Rudolph Steinmetz, April 9, 1865 – October 26, 1923) was a German-born American mathematician and electrical engineer and professor at Union College. He fostered the development of alternating current that made possible the expansion of the electric power industry in the United States, formulating mathematical theories for engineers. He made ground-breaking discoveries in the understanding of hysteresis that enabled engineers to design better electromagnetic apparatus equipment including especially electric motors for use in industry.[1][2][a]

At the time of his death, Steinmetz held over 200 patents.[3] A genius in both mathematics and electronics, his work earned him the nicknames "Forger of Thunderbolts"[4] and "The Wizard of Schenectady".[5] Steinmetz's equation, Steinmetz solids, Steinmetz curves, and Steinmetz equivalent circuit theory are all named after him, as are numerous honors and scholarships, including the IEEE Charles Proteus Steinmetz Award, one of the highest technical recognitions given by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers professional society.

Early life

Steinmetz maintained a small cabin overlooking the Mohawk River near Schenectady, New York.

Steinmetz was born Karl August Rudolph Steinmetz on April 9, 1865 in Breslau, Province of Silesia, Prussia (now Wrocław, Poland) the son of Caroline (Neubert) and Karl Heinrich Steinmetz.[6][7] He was baptized a Lutheran into the Evangelical Church of Prussia.[8][9] Steinmetz, who only stood four feet tall as an adult,[5] suffered from dwarfism,[7] hunchback,[7] and hip dysplasia, as did his father and grandfather. Steinmetz attended Johannes Gymnasium and astonished his teachers with his proficiency in mathematics and physics.

Following the Gymnasium, Steinmetz went on to the University of Breslau to begin work on his undergraduate degree in 1883. He was on the verge of finishing his doctorate in 1888 when he came under investigation by the German police for activities on behalf of a socialist university group and articles he had written for a local socialist newspaper.

Socialism and technocracy

As socialist meetings and press had been banned in Germany, Steinmetz fled to Zürich in 1888 to escape possible arrest. Faced with an expiring visa, he emigrated to the United States in 1889. He changed his first name to "Charles" in order to sound more American, and chose the middle name "Proteus", a wise hunchbacked character from the Odyssey who knew many secrets, after a childhood epithet given by classmates Steinmetz felt suited him.[10]

Cornell University Professor Ronald R. Kline, the author of Steinmetz: Engineer and Socialist,[11] contended that other factors were more directly involved in Steinmetz's decision to leave his homeland, such as being in arrears with his tuition at the University and life at home with his father, stepmother, and their daughters being tension filled.[citation needed]

Despite his earlier efforts and interest in socialism, by 1922 Steinmetz concluded that socialism would never work in the United States, because the country lacked a "powerful, centralized government of competent men, remaining continuously in office", and because "only a small percentage of Americans accept this viewpoint today".[12]

A member of the original Technical Alliance, which also included Thorstein Veblen and Leland Olds, Steinmetz had great faith in the ability of machines to eliminate human toil and create abundance for all. He put it this way: "Some day we make the good things of life for everybody".[13]

Engineering wizard

Steinmetz circa 1915

Steinmetz is known for his contribution in three major fields of alternating current (AC) systems theory: hysteresis, steady-state analysis, and transients.[14]

AC hysteresis theory

Shortly after arriving in the United States, Steinmetz went to work for Rudolf Eickemeyer in Yonkers, New York, and published in the field of magnetic hysteresis, which gave him worldwide professional recognition.[15] Eickemeyer's firm developed transformers for use in the transmission of electrical power among many other mechanical and electrical devices. In 1893 Eickemeyer's company, along with all of its patents and designs, was bought by the newly formed General Electric Company, where Steinmetz quickly became known as the engineering wizard in GE's engineering community.[15]

AC steady state circuit theory

Steinmetz's work revolutionized AC circuit theory and analysis, which had been carried out using complicated, time-consuming calculus-based methods. In the groundbreaking paper, "Complex Quantities and Their Use in Electrical Engineering", presented at a July 1893 meeting published in the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (AIEE), Steinmetz simplified these complicated methods to "a simple problem of algebra". He systematized the use of complex number phasor representation in electrical engineering education texts, whereby the lower-case letter "j" is used to designate the 90-degree rotation operator in AC system analysis.[2][16] His seminal books and many other AIEE papers "taught a whole generation of engineers how to deal with AC phenomena".[2][17]

AC transient theory

Steinmetz also greatly advanced the understanding of lightning. His systematic experiments resulted in the first laboratory created "man-made lightning", earning him the nickname the "Forger of Thunderbolts".[4] These were conducted in a football field-sized laboratory at General Electric, using 120,000 volt generators. He also erected a lightning tower to attract natural lightning in order to study its patterns and effects, which resulted in several theories.[citation needed]

Professional life

Steinmetz acted in the following professional capacities:

He was granted an honorary degree from Harvard University in 1901[18] and a doctorate from Union College in 1903.[18]

Steinmetz wrote 13 books and 60 articles, not exclusively about engineering.[further explanation needed] He was a member and adviser to the fraternity Phi Gamma Delta at Union College, whose chapter house there was one of the first ever electrified residences.[citation needed]

While serving as president of the Schenectady Board of Education Steinmetz introduced numerous progressive reforms, including extended school hours, school meals, school nurses, special classes for the children of immigrants, and the distribution of free textbooks.[10]

Personal life

In spite of his love for children and family life, Steinmetz remained unmarried to prevent the spinal deformity afflicting himself, his father, and grandfather from being passed on to any offspring.[10]

When Joseph LeRoy Hayden, a loyal and hardworking lab assistant, announced that he would marry and look for his own living quarters, Steinmetz made the unusual proposal of opening his large home, complete with research lab, greenhouse, and office to the Haydens and their prospective family. Hayden favored the idea, but his future wife was very wary of the unorthodox setup. She finally agreed after Steinmetz's assurance she could run the house as she saw fit.[10]

After an uneasy start, the arrangement worked well for all parties, especially after three Hayden children were born. Steinmetz legally adopted Joseph Hayden as his son, becoming grandfather to the youngsters, entertaining them with fantastic stories and spectacular scientific demonstrations. The unusual but harmonious living arrangements lasted for the rest of Steinmetz's life.[10]

Steinmetz founded America's first glider club, but none of its prototypes "could be dignified with the term 'flight'".[20][21][b]

Steinmetz was a lifelong agnostic.[22][c] He died of a heart attack on October 26, 1923, and was buried in Vale Cemetery in Schenectady.[23]


Group being given a tour of the Marconi Wireless Station in Somerset, New Jersey in 1921, Steinmetz (center), Albert Einstein (to his right)

The "Forger of Thunderbolts"[4] and "Wizard of Schenectady"[5] earned wide recognition among the scientific community and numerous awards and honors both during his life and posthumously.

"Steinmetz's equation", derived from his experiments, defines the approximate heat energy due to magnetic hysteresis released, per cycle per unit area of magnetic material.[d][24] A Steinmetz solid is the solid body generated by the intersection of two or three cylinders of equal radius at right angles. Steinmetz equivalent circuit theory is still widely used for the design and testing of induction motors.[25][26]

One of the highest technical recognitions given by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the IEEE Charles Proteus Steinmetz Award, is given for major contributions to standardization within the field of electrical and electronics engineering. Other awards include the Certificate of Merit of Franklin Institute, 1908; the Elliott Cresson Medal, 1913; and the Cedergren Medal, 1914.[27]

The Charles P. Steinmetz Memorial Lecture series was begun in his honor in 1925,[28] sponsored by the Schenectady branch of the IEEE.[29] Through 2017 seventy-three gatherings have taken place, held almost exclusively at Union College, featuring notable figures such as Nobel laureate experimental physicist Robert A. Millikan, helicopter inventor Igor Sikorsky, nuclear submarine pioneer Admiral Hyman G. Rickover (1963), Nobel-winning semiconductor inventor William Shockley, and Internet 'founding father' Leonard Kleinrock.[30] The Charles P. Steinmetz Scholarship is awarded annually by the college,[31] underwritten since its inception in 1923 by the General Electric Company.[29]

The Charles P. Steinmetz Memorial Scholarship was established at Union by Marjorie Hayden, daughter of Joseph and Corrine Hayden, and is awarded to students majoring in engineering or physics.[32]

Steinmetz's connection to Union is further celebrated with the annual Steinmetz Symposium,[33] a day-long event in which Union undergraduates give presentations on research they have done. Steinmetz Hall, which houses the Union College computer center, is named after him.

Steinmetz was portrayed in 1959 by the actor Rod Steiger in the CBS television anthology series, The Joseph Cotten Show. The episode focused on his socialist activities in Germany.[34]

A Chicago public high school, Steinmetz College Prep, is named for him.[35]

A public park in north Schenectady, New York was named for him in 1931.[36]

In popular culture

Steinmetz is featured in John Dos Passos's U.S.A. trilogy in one of the biographies.[37] He also serves as a major character in Starling Lawrence's The Lightning Keeper.[38]

Novelist John Ball grew up in Steinmetz's house. His parents were graduate students paid by General Electric to live with and take care of the man Ball called "Uncle Steinie". Ball used to tell his Steinmetz stories at the Southern California Mystery Writers Association meetings.[citation needed]

Steinmetz is a major character in the novel Electric City by Elizabeth Rosner.



At the time of his death, Steinmetz held over 200 patents:[3]


Other sources

  • Alger, P.L.; Arnold, R.E. (1976). "The History of Induction Motors in America". Proceedings of the IEEE. 64 (9): 1380–1383. doi:10.1109/PROC.1976.10329. Archived from the original on October 13, 2014.
  • Broderick, John Thomas (1924). Steinmetz and His Discoveries. Robson & Adee.
  • Caldecott, Ernest; Alger, Philip Langdon (1965). Steinmetz the Philosopher. Schenectady, NY: Mohawk Development Service.
  • Garlin, Sender (1977). "Charles Steinmetz: Scientist and Socialist (1865–1923): Including the Complete Steinmetz-Lenin Correspondence". Three Radicals. New York: American Institute for Marxist Studies.
  • Gilbert, James B. (Winter 1974). "Collectivism and Charles Steinmetz". Business History Review. 48 (4): 520–540. JSTOR 3113539.
  • Goodrich, Arthur (June 1904). "Charles P. Steinmetz, Electrician". The World's Work. issue 8. pp. 4867–4869. .
  • Hart, Larry (1978). Steinmetz in Schenectady: A Picture History of Three Memorable Decades. Old Dorp Books.
  • Hammond, John Winthrop (1924). Charles Proteus Steinmetz: A Biography. New York: The Century & Co.
  • Kline, Ronald R. (1992). Steinmetz: Engineer and Socialist. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Knowlton, A. E. (1949). Standard Electrical of Electrical Engineers. McGraw-Hill. p. 49 (§2.67), 323 (§4.280).
  • Lavine, Sigmund A. (1955). Steinmetz, Maker of Lightning. Dodd, Mead & Co.
  • Leonard, Jonathan Norton (1929). Loki: The Life of Charles Proteus Steinmetz. New York: Doubleday.
  • Miller, Floyd (1962). The Electrical Genius of Liberty Hall: Charles Proteus Steinmetz. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Miller, John Anderson; Steinmetz, Charles Proteus (1958). Modern Jupiter: The Story of Charles Proteus Steinmetz. American Society of Mechanical Engineers.
  • Remscheid, Emil J.; Charves, Virginia Remscheid (1977). Recollections of Steinmetz: A Visit to the Workshops of Dr. Charles Proteus Steinmetz. General Electric Company, Research and Development.
  • Whitehead, John B., Jr. (1901). "Review: Alternating Current Phenomena, by C. P. Steinmetz" (PDF). Bull. Amer. Math. Soc. (3rd ed.). 7 (9): 399–408. doi:10.1090/S0002-9904-1901-00825-7.
  • "Charles Proteus Steinmetz". IEEE Engineering Management Review. IEEE. 44 (2): 7–9. 2016. doi:10.1109/EMR.2016.2568678.

See also