The Inspiring Feats of Charles Steinmetz, the “Engineer’s Engineer”
Charles Steinmetz's findings have helped EEs understand AC systems for decades.
Charles Proteus Steinmetz was a mathematical genius, a problem solver, and an “engineer's engineer.” Steinmetz had the rare ability to both teach theory and practice electrical engineering with equal aplomb.
Having lived in the golden era of electrical engineering alongside names like Edison, Tesla, Einstein, Thomson, and Westinghouse, Charles Steinmetz was somewhat of a hidden gem among electricity giants—but only for those who haven't investigated the life and the work of this remarkable scientist.
Steinmetz and Edison pictured on a rare occasion while experimenting with artificial lightning.
The Making of an Engineer: From Talent to Calling
Charles Proteus Steinmetz (born Karl August Rudolf Steinmetz on April 9, 1865, in Breslau, Prussia—today's Wroclaw in Poland) had congenital kyphosis—a forward curvature of the spine. Because of this condition, he only stood four feet tall, a trait that made a significant mark on his personal life.
Proven as an outstanding student of mathematics, chemistry, economics, and medicine at the University of Breslau, the young Charles Steinmetz took his chance as a U.S. immigrant in 1889, where he landed his first job in electrical engineering at the firm of Rudolf Eickemeyer in Yonkers, New York.
As he became increasingly interested in practical engineering solutions, Steinmetz created his first small research lab. It was there that Steinmetz used a mathematical equation to identify a phenomenon in power losses—known as the Law of Hysteresis or Steinmetz’s Law—which lead to breakthroughs in both AC and DC systems. From that point forward, he started his long string of professional successes that threw him into the heart of the fast-developing electricity industry at the beginning of the 20th century.
Steinmetz Prolific Era of Innovation
In the period from 1889 all the way to his death in 1923, Steinmetz was employed while also taking prominent social and university roles. Nonetheless, electrical engineering remained his primary passion. Before he finally settled in Schenectady in 1894, he published a paper on magnetic hysteresis, establishing his reputation as a leading scientist at the age of 27. Steinmetz was immediately thrown into the spotlight when both the AIEE (American Institute of Electrical Engineers) and GE (General Electric) showed interest in his work.
Until 1893, Steinmetz lived in Lynn, Massachusetts, where he worked with Elisu Thomson from GE. According to Edison Center, GE initially offered to buy Eickemeyer's business to get Steinmatz's astuteness as a package deal with Eickemeyer's transformer patents.
Steinmetz with his renowned contemporaries—Tesla, Einstein, and others at Marconi wireless station in New Jersey.
Steinmetz attracted much attention because he was the first to mathematically explain hysteresis loss. In Schenectady, New York, where GE built a major plant, Charles Steinmetz established the first GE research lab in which most of his groundbreaking discoveries took place.
Apart from painstakingly working on AC power systems research, Steinmetz became an academic at Union College, teaching electrical engineering and electrophysics. Later in life, he was a president of the city council, a president of the board of education of Schenectady, and an (AIEE) president from 1901 to 1902.
Steinmetz was a hardworking, exuberant personality who loved electric cars; he even drove the Detroit electric car from the back seat. Steinmetz once solved a longstanding problem for GE engineers in two days when he made a chalk mark on a poorly-performing generator to indicate the place that needed repairs. When the famous manufacturer asked for an itemized bill, the bill included two items: $1 for making the mark and $9,999 for knowing where to put the mark.
Hysteresis, AC Loss Calculations, and the Theory of Electrical Transients
The Law of Hysteresis explains power losses due to magnetism in electric circuits turning into heat. Before Steinmetz calculated the power loss that occurs due to magnetism, engineers had to build devices to understand the losses. Now, it was possible to know the numbers in advance.
By creating a mathematical method to calculate losses in AC circuits, Steinmetz helped electrical engineers efficiently work with alternating current systems and accelerated the adoption of widespread commercial AC devices.
The famous Steinmetz equation has been upgraded and improved over the years, but the original coefficients for magnetic materials remain the same.
An AC generator designed by Elihu Thomson and Charles Steinmetz in 1895.
Steinmetz also established the theory of electrical transients, which he formulated while studying lightning bolts. His studies of these traveling waves eventually led to the invention of protective devices for high-transmission power lines.
Among the other notable products of Charles Steinmetz are the first version of metal-halide lamps and a high-powered generator that could generate power of more than 1,000,000 hp for 1/100,000 of a second. At the GE research lab, Steinmetz also helped create W. Coolidge's X-ray and Albert Hull's vacuum tube.
Steinmetz's Lasting Impact on Power Design
Steinmetz identified first as a researcher, secondly as an educator, and finally—a businessman. Not many patents stand behind his name, but that is only because he didn't take much interest in the commercial side of his work.
In 1912, Steinmetz invented the metal-halide lamp used around the world today.
Steinmetz was driven by results. He was less interested in accolades than he was in behind-the-scenes research, accounting for his low profile in mainstream publications. Had it not been for this engineer's mathematical genius, research in ferromagnetic and ferroelectric materials for spintronics may not be where it is today.
His research has made a long-lasting impact on AC and DC systems and power design at large.
All images used courtesy of the Edison Tech Center.