An electronics genius, Charles Proteus Steinmetz founded the General Electriclaboratory and refined and standardized the study and notation of alternating current circuitry. In all, he patented some 200 electrical inventions. A public-spirited visionary, he also predicted problems with air and water quality, especially from the burning of soft coal.
Born in Breslau, Germany, on April 6, 1865, Steinmetz inherited an oversizedhead, twisted spine, and hunchback, deformities passed down by his father andgrandfather. His father sent him to the University of Breslau, where he compensated for his disability by becoming politically and socially involved in campus activities. Extending his education in Berlin and Zurich, he studied language, science, math, and medicine. Because Steinmetz edited a socialist newspaper and wrote an inflammatory article, he was forced to flee Germany or face arrest. Abandoning the final stages of a doctoral degree, he escaped firstto the Polytechnic Institute in Zurich, Switzerland, and then on to America,where he became a citizen in 1894 and Americanized his name from Karl AugustRudolf Steinmetz to Charles Proteus Steinmetz, Proteus being his universitynickname.
Rejected by Thomas Edison's factory, Steinmetz drafted plans for streetcar motors at Eickemeyer and Osterheld Manufacturing, a small Manhattan electricalcompany. In Yonkers, New York, Steinmetz maintained an experimental laboratory and studied alternating current, which varied from the mainstream direct current system developed by Thomas and Charles Edison. Steinmetz delivered addresses on transformer design to the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, and explained how to generate electrical power cheaper and more efficiently. As a consultant for General Electric, the first major American electrical company, he moved to Lynn, Massachusetts, to oversee the calculations department. From experiments conducted at the Schenectady plant, he patented the magnetite arc street lamp and the aluminum lightning arrester and developed turbines for the Niagara Falls power station.
Advancing studies begun by Nikola Tesla, Steinmetz's research on hysteresis (a magnetic phenomenon that caused power loss in motors) was applied to the design of AC circuits, and resulted in precise calculations of magnetic resistance. Steinmetz also originated standard symbolic notation for schematic drawings of ciruits. Steinmetz was always far ahead of his colleagues in mathematical skills, and few in his lecture's audience understood the brilliance of his ideas about magnetism and alternating current circuits. Steinmetz publishedhis theories in articles and textbooks, including educational books to teachthe mathematics required to understand his ideas. At General Electric Steinmetz staffed the company lab with bright, creative people working under his tutelage.
Steinmetz served as president of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, head of Schenectady's board of education, and president of the common council. From 1902 to 1914, he taught electrical engineering at Union College. In this capacity, he studied lightning and its effects on power relay systems.From his studies of artificial lightning in 1921, he created measures to protect high-tension power equipment from destruction by lightning bolts. Steinmetz maintained productive friendships with noted inventors and scientists, including Henry Ford, Guglielmo Marconi, Tesla, and Albert Einstein. He also published an impressive list of nine scientific volumes, including Theory and Calculation of Alternating Current Phenomena (1897). He died of heart failure on October 26, 1923.