Charles Proteus Steinmetz

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Charles Proteus Steinmetz
Born Karl August Rudolph Steinmetz
(1865-04-09)April 9, 1865
Breslau, Province of Silesia, Prussia
Died October 26, 1923(1923-10-26) (aged 58)
Schenectady, New York, United States
Resting place Vale Cemetery
Occupation Mathematician and electrical engineer
Known for
  • Karl Heinrich Steinmetz
  • Caroline Neubert
Awards Elliott Cresson Medal (1913)

Charles Proteus Steinmetz (April 9, 1865 – October 26, 1923; birth-name: Karl August Rudolph Steinmetz) was a Prussian-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]

Early life[edit]

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, the son of Caroline (Neubert) and Karl Heinrich Steinmetz.[3] He was baptized a Lutheran, the religion his family "nominally" belonged to.[4][5] Steinmetz suffered from dwarfism, hunchback, 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[edit]

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" after a childhood epithet given to him by classmates. Proteus was a wise hunchbacked character from the Odyssey who knew many secrets, and Steinmetz felt the name suited him.[citation needed]

Cornell University Professor Ronald R. Kline, the author of Steinmetz: Engineer and Socialist, contended that other factors were more directly involved in Steinmetz's decision to leave his homeland, such as the fact that he was in arrears with his tuition at the University of Breslau and that life at home with his father, stepmother, and their daughters was full of tension.[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".[6]

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". [7]


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.

AC hysteresis theory[edit]

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 world-wide professional recognition.[8] 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 he quickly became known as the engineering wizard in GE's engineering community.[8]

AC steady state circuit theory[edit]

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][9] His seminal books and many other AIEE papers "taught a whole generation of engineers how to deal with AC phenomena".[2][10]

AC transient theory[edit]

Steinmetz also made greater strides to the understanding of lightning phenomena. He undertook a systematic study of it, resulting in experiments with "man-made lightning" in the laboratory; this work was published.[citation needed] Steinmetz was called the "forger of thunderbolts", being the first to create artificial lightning in his football field-sized laboratory and high towers built at General Electric, using 120,000 volt generators. He erected a lightning tower to attract natural lightning, and studied the patterns and effects of lightning resulting in several theories and ideas.[citation needed]

Professional and personal aspects[edit]

Steinmetz became Professor of Electrical Engineering at Union College in 1902, as well as Chairman of the Electrical Engineering Department and served on the faculty until the end of World War I. He was awarded honorary degrees by both Harvard University and Union. Steinmetz also served as president of the Board of Education of Schenectady, New York, and as president of the Schenectady City Council. He was president of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (AIEE) from 1901 to 1902,[11] as well as the first vice-president of the International Association of Municipal Electricians (IAME) — which later became the International Municipal Signal Association (IMSA) — from 1913 until his death. Steinmetz wrote 13 books and 60 articles, not all 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 electrified houses ever.[citation needed]

Steinmetz was a lifelong agnostic.[12][b]


Steinmetz died on October 26, 1923 and was buried in Vale Cemetery, Schenectady, New York.[13]

Marconi Wireless Station in Somerset, New Jersey in 1921, on the day Albert Einstein was given a tour. Steinmetz is at center; he died two years later.

Based on Steinmetz experiments, "Steinmetz's formula" defines the approximate heat energy due to magnetic hysteresis released, per cycle per unit area of magnetic material.[c][14] Steinmetz equivalent circuit theory is still widely used for the design and testing of induction motors.[15]

One of the highest technical awards given by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, for major contributions to standardization within the field of electrical and electronics engineering, is named in his honor as the IEEE Charles Proteus Steinmetz Award.

His connection to Union College is celebrated with the annual Steinmetz Symposium,[16] 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.

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

A public park in north Schenectady, New York was named for him in 1931.[17]


At the time of his death, Steinmetz held over 200 patents:[18]

In popular culture[edit]

Steinmetz is featured in John Dos Passos's U.S.A. trilogy in one of the biographies.[19] He also serves as a major character in Starling Lawrence's The Lightning Keeper.[20]

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 to the Southern California Mystery Writers Association meetings.[citation needed]

Steinmetz is a major character in the novel Electric City by Elizabeth Rosner. In this epic story of technology, Rosner connects Steinmetz's early ethos as a socialist with his humanitarian vision of a better society based on technological progress: "The political arena that had summoned him in his youth, Socialist views that sent him into exile all those years earlier, further contributed to a seemingly endless hunger for change".[21]




  1. ^ Quoting from Alger, "Steinmetz was truly the patron saint of the GE motor business."[2]
  2. ^ Quoting from Hammond, "This has placed him before the public as an atheist.* The title he did not deny. The writer, however, would put him down as a confirmed agnostic, for an atheist is a person who knows there is no God, and Steinmetz was not of that..."[12]
  3. ^ , where η is hysteresis coefficient, βmax is maximum flux density and k is an empirical exponent.


  1. ^ Charles Proteus Steinmetz. Invent Now, Inc. Hall of Fame profile. Invent Now, Inc. Retrieved 25 May 2014. 
  2. ^ a b c d 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. 
  3. ^ Clemens, Nora; Greenberger, Robert. Discovering the Nature of Energy (1st ed.). New York: Rosen Publishing Group. p. 78. ISBN 978-1448847020. 
  4. ^ Charles P. Steinmetz, scientist and socialist (1865-1923), including the ... - Sender Garlin - Google Books
  5. ^ Credo: Unitarians and Universalists of Yesteryear Talk About Their Lives and ... - Don McEvoy - Google Books
  6. ^ "Charles Steinmetz: Union's Electrical Wizard". Union College Magazine. November 1, 1998. Retrieved May 31, 2009. [dead link]
  7. ^ Retrieved November-2-2014
  8. ^ a b "The Magnetic Force of Charles Proteus Steinmetz". IEEE Power Engineering Review. 16 (9): 7. Feb 1996. doi:10.1109/MPER.1996.535476. Archived from the original on 25 May 2014. Retrieved 7 February 2013. 
  9. ^ Bedell, Frederick. "History of A-C Wave Form, Its Determination and Standardization". Transactions of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers. 61 (12): 865. doi:10.1109/T-AIEE.1942.5058456. 
  10. ^ "Steinmetz, Putting it in Perspective - R, L, and C Elements and the Impedance Concept" (PDF). Zabreb School of Engineering. Retrieved 21 December 2012. 
  11. ^ "Charles Proteus Steinmetz". IEEE Global History Network. IEEE. Retrieved 8 August 2011. 
  12. ^ a b Hammond, John Winthrop (1924). Charles Proteus Steinmetz: A biography. The Century & Co. p. 447. 
  13. ^ Charles Steinmetz at Find a Grave
  14. ^ Knowlton, A. E. (1949). Standard Electrical of Electrical Engineers. McGraw-Hill. p. 49 (§2.67), 323 (§4.280). 
  15. ^ Knowlton, p. 711 (§7.207).
  16. ^ "Steinmetz Symposium: Celebrating 25 years of student research". Union College. 9 May 2015. 
  17. ^ Steinmetz Park Association (2006). "Steinmetz Park Master Plan" (PDF). Schenectady, N.Y. p. 3. Archived from the original (PDF) on 20 November 2011. Retrieved January 22, 2013. 
  18. ^ "C. P. Steinmetz". Becklaser. 
  19. ^ The 42nd Parallel, p. 335.
  20. ^ Smith, Dinitia (May 13, 2006). "Starling Lawrence Writes a Novel About the Early Days of G.E". The New York Times. 
  21. ^ Electric City, Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2014, p. 53.
  22. ^ 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. 

Further reading[edit]

  • John Thomas Broderick, Steinmetz and His Discoveries. Robson & Adee, 1924.
  • Ernest Caldecott and Philip Langdon Alger (eds.), Steinmetz the Philosopher. Schenectady, NY: Mohawk Development Service, 1965.
  • Sender Garlin, Charles Steinmetz: Scientist and Socialist (1865–1923): Including the Complete Steinmetz-Lenin Correspondence. New York: American Institute for Marxist Studies, 1977. —Reprinted in Sender Garlin's 1991 book Three Radicals.
  • James B. Gilbert, "Collectivism and Charles Steinmetz", Business History Review, vol. 48, no. 4 (Winter 1974), pp. 520–540. In JSTOR
  • Arthur Goodrich, "Charles P. Steinmetz, Electrician", The World's Work, vol. 8 (June 1904), pp. 4867–4869.
  • Larry Hart, Steinmetz in Schenectady: A Picture History of Three Memorable Decades. Old Dorp Books, 1978.
  • John Winthrop Hammond, Charles Proteus Steinmetz: A Biography. New York: The Century & Co., 1924.
  • Ronald R. Kline, Steinmetz: Engineer and Socialist. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.
  • Sigmund A Lavine, Steinmetz, Maker of Lightning. Dodd, Mead & Co., 1955.
  • Jonathan Norton Leonard, Loki: The Life of Charles Proteus Steinmetz. New York: Doubleday, 1929.
  • John Anderson Miller & Charles Proteus Steinmetz, Modern Jupiter: The Story of Charles Proteus Steinmetz. American Society of Mechanical Engineers, 1958.
  • Floyd Miller, The Electrical Genius of Liberty Hall: Charles Proteus Steinmetz. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1962.
  • Emil J. Remscheid & Virginia Remscheid Charves, Recollections of Steinmetz: A Visit to the Workshops of Dr. Charles Proteus Steinmetz. General Electric Company, Research and Development, 1977.

External links[edit]