Charles Proteus Steinmetz
13 artifacts in this set
Born April 9, 1865 in Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland), Carl August Rudolph Steinmetz grew up in a nontraditional household with his father, grandmother, and half-sisters.
At the University of Breslau, Steinmetz specialized in mathematical physics and enjoyed an active social life. He joined the mathematics club, where – as a nod to both his figure and intelligence – Steinmetz earned the nickname Proteus, after the prophetic “old man of the sea” in Greek mythology.
Steinmetz also joined a Socialist group, which was prohibited in Germany at the time. Under investigation, in debt, and unhappy at home, Steinmetz fled to Zurich in 1888. In Switzerland, he remained an active Socialist, continued reading and writing about science and mathematics, and decided to become an electrical engineer. In 1889, with little money, even less English, and almost no formal training, Steinmetz left Europe for the United States.
In New York, Steinmetz joined the small electrical firm of Rudolf Eickemeyer, a fellow German Socialist, and began to put his understanding of higher mathematics to work. Eickemeyer encouraged Steinmetz to experiment and publish his research, and provided him with a laboratory and a wide range of practical experience. By 1892, when General Electric (GE) purchased Eickemeyer’s company, Steinmetz had become an accomplished electrical engineer.
United States Patent No. 533,244 for Systems of Distribution by Alternating Currents, January 29, 1895
Steinmetz excelled at applying mathematical theory and scientific methods to practical engineering. His theories on alternating currents (AC), experiments on power loss, and useful publications placed him at the front of the field. Working in GE‘s Calculating Department, Steinmetz helped make AC systems more efficient over longer distances.
Charles Steinmetz, Clara Steinmetz, Ernst J. Berg and Others On an Outing near Schenectady, New York, July 1896
As Steinmetz helped define the role of “scientist-engineer” in the American electrical industry, he developed his own American identity. Steinmetz applied for citizenship in 1891, changed his name to Charles Proteus Steinmetz, and nurtured a healthy social life. The Mohawk River, where Steinmetz built a cabin in the late 1890s, became a favorite getaway.
Steinmetz assumed a mostly consultant role at GE around 1900. He helped the company launch an innovative research laboratory, but spent more time writing at his cabin or experimenting at a new home he shared with his adopted son and his family. Steinmetz also took on the development of his profession as head of the Electrical Engineering Department at nearby Union College and a leader of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers.
Charles Steinmetz and Thomas Edison at 1911 Convention of Edison Illuminating Companies, Thousand Islands, New York
In 1910, GE established a Consulting Engineering Department at Steinmetz’s recommendation and with him as technical director. His electrochemical and high-voltage research attracted attention. As with Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla, the press portrayed Steinmetz as a scientific “wizard” and sensationalized his technical work for popular audiences.
Steinmetz lectured often and authored a number of influential scientific articles, theories, and textbooks. He also wrote and spoke out about popular issues. When he returned to Socialist politics in the 1910s, Steinmetz published his theory of corporate socialism, "America and the New Epoch." He believed electrical engineering could bring about social change and predicted that universal electrification would improve standards of living.
A highly-publicized 1922 visit from Thomas Edison to GE’s research laboratory helped cement Steinmetz’s “Wizard of Schenectady” image. As part of his high-voltage research, Steinmetz developed a lightning generator to test new electrical equipment. Photographers captured Edison observing the machine in action, and newspapers hailed Steinmetz as a “modern Jove,” creator of artificial lightning.
GE played up the Steinmetz myth, printing photos and publishing descriptions of both Steinmetz’s scientific breakthroughs and his eccentricities – a fondness for exotic plants and animals, the unusual work environment of his Mohawk River cabin. Americans had begun to distrust powerful corporations, and this odd yet brilliant man whose physical appearance seemed to belie his intellect helped humanize GE.
Charles Steinmetz died in 1923 at the height of his popularity, helping to perpetuate his mythical image. But his technological prophecies were never fully realized, and popular memory held more tightly to athletes and movie stars than to scientists. Steinmetz’s Mohawk River cabin, moved by Henry Ford to Greenfield Village, serves as a reminder of his lasting contributions to today’s electrical system and the electrical engineering profession.