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Charles Proteus Steinmetz

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Charles Proteus Steinmetz
Karl August Rudolph Steinmetz

(1865-04-09)April 9, 1865
DiedOctober 26, 1923(1923-10-26) (aged 58)
Schenectady, New York, United States
Resting placeVale Cemetery
Alma materUniversity of Breslau
Union College (doctorate)
Occupation(s)Mathematician and electrical engineer
Known for
AwardsElliott Cresson Medal (1913)
Cedergren Medal (1914)
Scientific career
InstitutionsUnion College

Charles Proteus Steinmetz (born Karl August Rudolph Steinmetz; April 9, 1865 – October 26, 1923) was an 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, 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, he did work that earned him the nicknames "Forger of Thunderbolts"[4] and "The Wizard of Schenectady".[5] Steinmetz's equation,[6] Steinmetz solids, Steinmetz curves, and Steinmetz equivalent circuit[7] 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 and education[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, Prussia (now Wrocław, Poland) the son of Caroline (Neubert) and Karl Heinrich Steinmetz.[8][9] He was baptized as a Lutheran into the Evangelical Church of Prussia.[10][11] Steinmetz, who stood only 4 ft 0 in (1.22 m) tall as an adult,[5] had dwarfism,[9] hunchback,[9] and hip dysplasia, as did his father and grandfather. Steinmetz graduated with honors from St. John's Gymnasium in 1882.[12]

Following Gymnasium, Steinmetz studied at the University of Breslau to begin work on his undergraduate degree in 1883. Nearing completion of his doctorate in 1888, he was forced to flee to Zürich, Switzerland, as the German government was preparing to prosecute him for his socialist activities.[13]

Political persecution and emigration[edit]

As socialist meetings and press had been banned in Germany, Steinmetz fled to Zürich in 1889 to escape possible arrest. Cornell University Professor Ronald R. Kline, author of Steinmetz: Engineer and Socialist,[14] points to other factors which reinforced Steinmetz's decision to leave his homeland such as financial problems and the prospect of a more harmonious life with his socialist friends and supporters than the stressful domestic circumstances of his father's household.[14]: 16–17 

Faced with an expiring visa, he emigrated to the United States in 1889. He changed his first name to "Charles" to sound more American, and chose the middle name "Proteus", a wise hunchbacked character from the Odyssey who knew many secrets, after a epithet bestowed upon him by his college fraternity brothers.[15]

Political activism in the USA[edit]

Steinmetz was politically active in the US as a technocratic socialist for over thirty years. Following the Bolshevik introduction of a technocratic plan to electrify Russia, Steinmetz spoke of Lenin alongside Albert Einstein as the "two greatest minds of our time."[14]: 253  He believed in a corporatist industrial government also covering its human wellfare function.[14]: 230 

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 [will] make the good things of life for everybody."[citation needed]

Electrical engineering[edit]

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.[16]

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, earning worldwide professional recognition.[17] 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.[17]

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][18] His seminal books and many other AIEE papers "taught a whole generation of engineers how to deal with AC phenomena".[2][19]

AC transient theory[edit]

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 to study its patterns and effects, which resulted in several theories.[20]

Professional life[edit]

Steinmetz acted in the following professional capacities:

He was granted an honorary degree from Harvard University in 1901[21] and a doctorate from Union College in 1903.[21]

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 was one of the first electrified residences.[23]

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.[15]

Personal life[edit]

Steinmetz posed inside his 1914 Detroit Electric automobile behind some members of his adopted family. From left to right are grandchildren Midge, Billy, and Joe Hayden, and adopted son Joseph LeRoy Hayden.[24]

Steinmetz was affected by kyphosis, as were his father and grandfather. In spite of his love for children and family life, Steinmetz remained unmarried, to prevent his spinal deformity from being passed to any offspring.[15]

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 wary of the unorthodox arrangement. She agreed after Steinmetz's assurance that she could run the house as she saw fit.[15]

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, harmonious living arrangement lasted for the rest of Steinmetz's life.[15]

Steinmetz founded America's first glider club, but none of its prototypes "could be dignified with the term 'flight'".[25][26][b]

Steinmetz was a lifelong agnostic.[27][c] He died on October 26, 1923, and was buried in Vale Cemetery in Schenectady.


Group tour of the Marconi Wireless Station in Somerset, New Jersey in 1921, including Steinmetz (center) and Albert Einstein (to his right)
Life-size bronze statue of Charles Steinmetz meeting Thomas Edison

Steinmetz 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 volume of magnetic material. 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 is still widely used for the design and testing of induction machines.[28]

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.[29] Steinmetz was also an elected member of both the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society.[30][31]

The Charles P. Steinmetz Memorial Lecture series was begun in his honor in 1925,[32] sponsored by the Schenectady branch of the IEEE.[33] 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.[34]

Steinmetz's connection to Union is further celebrated with the annual Steinmetz Symposium,[35] 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.

The Charles P. Steinmetz Scholarship is awarded annually by the college,[36] underwritten since its inception in 1923 by the General Electric Company.[33] An additional Charles P. Steinmetz Memorial Scholarship was later established at Union by Marjorie Hayden, daughter of Joseph and Corrine Hayden, and is awarded to students majoring in engineering or physics.[37]

A 1914 "Duplex Drive Brougham" Detroit Electric automobile that once belonged to Steinmetz was purchased by Union College in 1971, and restored for use in campus ceremonies. The Steinmetz car is permanent displayed in the first-floor corridor between the Wold Center and F.W. Olin building.[38][39]

A Chicago public high school, Steinmetz College Prep, is named for him,[40] as well as a Schenectady public school, the Steinmetz Career and Leadership Academy, formerly Steinmetz Middle-School.

A public park in north Schenectady, New York was named for him in 1931.[41]

In 1983, the US Post Office included Steinmetz in a series of postage stamps commemorating American inventors.[42]

In May 2015, a life-size bronze statue of Charles Steinmetz meeting Thomas Edison by sculptor and caster Dexter Benedict was unveiled on a plaza on the corner of Erie Boulevards and South Ferry Street in Schenectady.[43]

In popular culture[edit]

Steinmetz is featured in John Dos Passos' U.S.A. trilogy in one of the biographies.[44][45] He also serves as a major character in Starling Lawrence's The Lightning Keeper.[46]

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

In the 1944 Three Stooges short "Busy Buddies", Moe Howard references Steinmetz.[47]

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.[citation needed]

A famous anecdote about Steinmetz concerns a troubleshooting consultation at Henry Ford's River Rouge Plant. A humorous aspect of the story is the "itemized bill" he submitted for the work performed.[15]



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


See also[edit]

Explanatory notes[edit]

  1. ^ Quoting from Alger, "Steinmetz was truly the patron saint of the GE motor business."[2]
  2. ^ He founded the Mohawk Aerial Navigation Company, Ltd.[25] Steinmetz also partnered with others to establish the Mohawk River Aerial Navigation, Transportation, and Exploration Company, Unlimited.[26]
  3. ^ Quoting from Hammond, "This has placed him before the public as an atheist.* The title he did not deny. The writer 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..."[27]


  1. ^ Charles Proteus Steinmetz. Invent Now, Inc. Hall of Fame profile. Invent Now, Inc. Archived from the original on March 3, 2016. Retrieved May 25, 2014.
  2. ^ a b c d Alger & Arnold 1976, pp. 1380–1383
  3. ^ a b "C. P. Steinmetz". Becklaser.
  4. ^ a b "Steinmetz, Forger of Thunderbolts; Charles Proteus Steinmetz: A Biography by John Winthrop Hammond". The New York Times. November 2, 1924.
  5. ^ a b King, Gilbert. "Charles Proteus Steinmetz, the Wizard of Schenectady".
  6. ^ Knowlton 1949, p. 49, §2-67, eq. 2-66; p. 323, §4-280, eq. 4-47
  7. ^ Knowlton 1949, p. 711, §7-207, fig. 7-84
  8. ^ Clemens, Nora; Greenberger, Robert (August 15, 2011). Discovering the Nature of Energy (1st ed.). New York: Rosen Publishing Group. p. 78. ISBN 978-1448847020.
  9. ^ a b c Kline 2014.
  10. ^ Garlin 1977
  11. ^ McEvoy, Don (2001). Credo: Unitarians and Universalists of Yesteryear Talk about Their Lives and Motivations. Lowell Pub. ISBN 9780970549907. Retrieved September 25, 2018 – via Google Books.
  12. ^ Erhardt, Louis (February 2000). "Luminaries In The Limelight". Lighting Design & Application. 30 (2).
  13. ^ "Dr. Steinmetz". TIME Magazine. 2 (10). November 5, 1923.
  14. ^ a b c d Ronald R. Klein, Steinmetz: Engineer and Socialist (Johns Hopkins Studies in the History of Technology), 1992 ISBN 978-0801842986,
  15. ^ a b c d e f King, Gilbert. "Charles Proteus Steinmetz, the Wizard of Schenectady". Smithsonian. Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved June 9, 2017.
  16. ^ See also IEC Electropedia's: hysteresis, steady state of a system, complex number and transient behaviour.
  17. ^ a b "The Magnetic Force of Charles Proteus Steinmetz". IEEE Power Engineering Review. 16 (9): 7. February 1996. doi:10.1109/MPER.1996.535476. S2CID 44921529.
  18. ^ Bedell, Frederick (1942). "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. S2CID 51658522.
  19. ^ "Steinmetz, Putting it in Perspective - R, L, and C Elements and the Impedance Concept" (PDF). Zabreb School of Engineering. Archived from the original (PDF) on January 5, 2014. Retrieved December 21, 2012.
  20. ^ "Charles Proteus Steinmetz (1865-1923)". Open Tesla Research. Retrieved May 5, 2020.
  21. ^ a b c d e f Lemelson-MIT Program,"Charles Steinmetz: Improvements to Alternating Current Motor"
  22. ^ "Charles Proteus Steinmetz". IEEE Global History Network. IEEE. Retrieved August 8, 2011.
  23. ^ "Union Magazine Winter 2019". Issuu. January 28, 2019. Retrieved May 28, 2019.
  24. ^ "Steinmetz electric car 1914 - Steinmetz, Charles". Google Arts & Culture. Retrieved July 8, 2022.
  25. ^ a b Crouch, Tom D. (February 7, 2002). A Dream of Wings: Americans and the Airplane, 1875–1905, pp. 171–172.
  26. ^ a b Froehlich, Fritz; Kent, Allen (editors, 1990). The Froehlich/Kent Encyclopedia of Telecommunications: Volume 15, p. 467
  27. ^ a b Hammond 1924, p. 447
  28. ^ Steinmetz & Berg 1897
  29. ^ "Charles Proteus Steinmetz, Pioneer of Alternating Current" (PDF).
  30. ^ "Charles Proteus Steinmetz". American Academy of Arts & Sciences. February 9, 2023. Retrieved October 19, 2023.
  31. ^ "APS Member History". search.amphilsoc.org. Retrieved October 19, 2023.
  32. ^ "Technology innovator to headline Steinmetz Memorial Lecture - Union College". Archived from the original on June 15, 2018. Retrieved July 22, 2018.
  33. ^ a b "IEEE Schenectady Section". IEEE Schenectady Section History. Schenectady: IEEE. December 13, 2021. Section History founded January 26, 1903.
  34. ^ "Dr. Charles Proteus Steinmetz memorial lecture series".
  35. ^ "Steinmetz Symposium: Celebrating 25 years of student research". Union College. May 9, 2015.
  36. ^ "Charles P. Steinmetz Scholarship (Union College-NY) – Scholarship Library". www.scholarshiplibrary.com. Archived from the original on July 23, 2018. Retrieved July 22, 2018.
  37. ^ "Union College, Endowed Scholarships" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on March 18, 2019. Retrieved July 22, 2018.
  38. ^ "Steinmetz car gets prominent spot at Union College". Union College. April 10, 2014. Retrieved July 8, 2022.
  39. ^ "Steinmetz Car drives into the spotlight". Union College. April 1, 2014. Retrieved July 8, 2022.
  40. ^ "Who was Charles Steinmetz?". Steinmetz College Prep. Retrieved March 28, 2019.
  41. ^ Steinmetz Park Association (2006). "Steinmetz Park Master Plan" (PDF). Schenectady, N.Y. p. 3. Archived from the original (PDF) on November 20, 2011. Retrieved January 22, 2013.
  42. ^ "American Inventors, September 21, 1983, Smithsonian Postal Museum".
  43. ^ Bump, Bethany (April 10, 2015). "Edison, Steinmetz statues slated for park near Schenectady GE". The Daily Gazette. Retrieved July 13, 2022.
  44. ^ The 42nd Parallel, p. 335.
  45. ^ Berg, Kirsten (October 1, 2008). "The Fine Line between Poetry and Mathematics". Powell's Books. Retrieved December 8, 2022.
  46. ^ Smith, Dinitia (May 13, 2006). "Starling Lawrence Writes a Novel About the Early Days of G.E". The New York Times.
  47. ^ "Busy Buddies (1944)". October 1, 2008.

General sources[edit]

  • 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. S2CID 42191157.
  • Broderick, John Thomas (1924). Steinmetz and His Discoveries. Robson & Adee.
  • Caldecott, Ernest; Alger, Philip Langdon (1965). Steinmetz the Philosopher. Schenectady, NY: Mohawk Development Service.
  • "Charles Proteus Steinmetz". IEEE Engineering Management Review. 44 (2). IEEE: 7–9. 2016. doi:10.1109/EMR.2016.2568678.
  • 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. doi:10.2307/3113539. JSTOR 3113539. S2CID 145106936.
  • Goodrich, Arthur (June 1904). "Charles P. Steinmetz, Electrician". The World's Work. Vol. 8. pp. 4867–4869.
  • Hammond, John Winthrop (1924). Charles Proteus Steinmetz: A Biography. New York: The Century & Co.
  • Hart, Larry (1978). Steinmetz in Schenectady: A Picture History of Three Memorable Decades. Old Dorp Books.
  • Kline, Ronald R. (1992). Steinmetz: Engineer and Socialist. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Kline, Ronald (2014). "Steinmetz, Charles". In Slotten, Hugh Richard (ed.). The Oxford Encyclopedia of the History of American Science, Medicine, and Technology. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0199766666.
  • Knowlton, A. E. (1949). Standard Electrical of Electrical Engineers. McGraw-Hill. ch. 2-Electric & Magnetic Circuits, ch. 4- Properties of Materials, ch. 7 - AC Generators & Motors
  • 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). "Book Review: Alternating Current Phenomena" (PDF). Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society. 7 (9): 399–408. doi:10.1090/S0002-9904-1901-00825-7. Archived (PDF) from the original on May 8, 2015.

External links[edit]