Charles Proteus Steinmetz Biography

A couple of years ago, a supporter of this channel with the amusingly terrifying name of Jack D. Ripper suggested I should look into the history of Charles Proteus Steinmetz, especially in regards to the story of him with Henry Ford.

Intrigued, I looked into him and I was hooked. Steinmetz is fascinating to me. His science and engineering contributions were immense: his theory of hysteresis, creating phasors, popularizing 3-phase in the US, high voltage AC studies, and creating the first artificial lightning with power, and more. No wonder he was called “an outstanding genius [and]… the superman of an electrical age.” Not only that but he was so delightfully quirky and, although I didn’t always agree with his politics, I am impressed with how his politics inspired him to improve the lives of others. 

Table of Contents

Charles Proteus Steinmetz Early Life
Steinmetz in Switzerland
Steinmetz and Oscar Asmussen
Steinmetz and Eickemeyer
Magnetic Hysteresis AKA Magnetic Lag
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Charles Proteus Steinmetz Early Life

Charles Steinmetz was born Carl August Steinmetz in 1865 in Breslau Germany (which is now Wroclaw, Poland) to a poor lithographer also named Carl and his wife Caroline. Steinmetz, his father, and his fraternal grandfather all had achondroplasia and kyphosis (or extremely short stature with the curvature of the spine), which affected his health more and more as he aged. By the time Steinmetz was an adult, he had difficulty sitting or standing straight which is why most of his photographs were of him leaning over a desk. Tragically, when Steinmetz was only a year old, his mother died from cholera and he was raised by his grandmother and aunt until he was 6 when his aunt got married and his grandmother left and he was raised by his 18-year-old half-sister Clara. 

Charles Proteus Steinmetz

At first, Charles struggled in school then, suddenly when he was around 10 years old, school just started to click. Steinmetz first began with an affinity for languages: Latin, French, Greek, Polish, and Hebrew, he loved them all. Then he finally got to algebra and geometry and mathematics became his favorite subject. By the time he was an adult, he was a mathematical savant who could do a table of logarithms up to 1000 in his head up to seven decimal places. When he graduated high school, he knew that all graduates had to do a formal oral examination and his family scrimped and saved to buy him a suit for the occasion. Then, just before the examination date, he learned he was the valedictorian and didn’t need an examination. Years later he recalled, “It was the only dress-suit [I] ever purchased and I never wore it!”

Steinmetz studied a large range of materials in college: but focused on mathematics. He also loved college and joined many clubs where he was known for his intelligence, his drinking ability, and his love of practical jokes. In the Math club, he was called by the nickname “Proteus” for the Greek god who knew everything that would often come to Earth disguised as a deformed man. Steinbeck loved the nickname, said it was “too lovely to be forgotten” and used it for the rest of his life. In 1884, when he was 19 years old, he got in a bit of trouble when he joined the Socialist circle at the University which followed the teachings of Ferdinand Lasalle, a rival of Karl Marx’s. This was dangerous, as the teaching of Lasalle was outlawed in Germany at the time. This came to a head in March of 1887, when the head of their group Heinrich Lux, was arrested. Steinmetz tried to keep a low profile and run their socialist paper by himself, although he communicated with Lux and other arrested friends via secret letters written in invisible ink.

Steinmetz in Switzerland

Charles Steinmetz with his adopted grandchildren — Billy, Marjorie (“Midge”), and Joe Hayden — and actor Douglas Fairbanks in Hollywood, ca. 1923

By May of 1888, things started to look dangerous so he told his father that he was going to visit a friend and then fled to Switzerland. Steinmetz recalled his farewell to his father: “we said goodbye briefly and without great formality. He supposed, naturally enough, that I would return after some few days, or perhaps a week. I knew I would probably never return, although I did not intimate this to him”). In Switzerland, he realized that he could not be a mathematician as “I was a Socialist, I could not bring myself to accept a government position, and I could not have earned a living at mathematics except in a government position.” He initially intended to be a chemist, but he changed his mind and joined a Polytechnic institute to get a degree in mechanical engineering with a focus on electrical instruments, which he mostly learned about through reading trade publications. In 1888, Steinmetz wrote a paper on the mathematical theories of how a transformer works. Note that transformers had been used to change the voltage of AC current for 7 years but had only started being popular with AC for street lights in 1885, and Westinghouse’s company had started using AC (with transformers) for incandescent bulbs starting in 1886. However, physicists and engineers were confused by the transformer. For example, during a talk from Westinghouse’s employee William Stanley on the physics of transformers in December 1887, an American electrician named George Prescott concluded, “it is a well-known fact that alternating currents do not follow Ohm’s law, and nobody knows what law they do follow.” Tragically, I cannot seem to find this paper of Steinmetz’s, so I cannot tell you what conclusions he made, but as this is before his studies in hysteresis, it would probably be immaterial anyway. (I still want to read it though).

Steinmetz and Oscar Asmussen

In Zurich, Steinmetz became close friends with a Danish engineer named Oscar Asmussen, who had been sent by a rich American uncle to get a European education and they quickly became roommates. Things were going swimmingly until April of 1889 when Asmussen wrote his uncle that he wanted to marry a Swiss lady. Asmussen’s uncle was appalled and told him that he was sent to Switzerland to study, not fall in love. Asmussen then was told to come back to America and all his funds were cut. Asmussen dejectedly made plans to go to America and Steinmetz told his friend that he would follow him as soon as Steinmetz scraped together enough cash. One night, Asmussen told Steinmetz to not worry about the money, “I have enough to take us both over if we travel cheaply,” and Steinmetz agreed, and they spent the night celebratory drinking their impromptu decision. At 10 the next morning, Steinmetz was still sleeping off his night, when an editor of a German electrical publication showed up to talk to Steinmetz as he had read some of his scientific papers. After Steinmetz told him of his decision to go to the states, Steinmetz was given a letter of introduction to a man named Rudolf Eickemeyer who had a mechanical company in America. The very next day, the two men packed up their belongings and soon were on a French steamer to America. Over the 8-day trip, Steinmetz tried to learn English, but he didn’t manage that much. In addition, as they waited for their turn to go through immigration, Steinmetz got a terrible cold and a swollen face, and when the immigration officers interviewed him his scant English combined with his poverty and looks caused them to reject his claim! Luckily, Asmussen assured them that Steinmetz was a genius “whose presence would someday benefit all of America,” and, after pretending that his personal wealth was actually shared by the two men (and possibly a bribe), the customs officials reluctantly agreed to let him enter the U.S. At this time Steinmetz changed his name from Carl to Charles and his middle name to his college nickname of Proteus.

Asmussen had some family in New York, so both men settled there and looked for a job. Asmussen got a job with a refrigerator company and, after Steinmetz was rejected by an Edison company, in June 1889, Steinmetz took his letter of introduction to meet with Rudolf Eickemeyer. Eickemeyer ran a company called Osterheld and Eickemeyer in Yonkers which mostly manufactured machines to make hats. On their first meeting, Steinmetz and Eickemeyer hit it off and spent hours discussing electricity and soon Steinmetz got a job as a drafter for $12 a month. Mind you, despite writing a paper about the physics of transformers in 1888, Steinmetz recalled, “I did not actually see a transformer until I got to Yonkers.” Luckily, Steinmetz was about to get a master’s class in the latest electrical technology.   

Steinmetz and Eickemeyer

See, Eickemeyer was an amazing inventor and invented a new winding for a dynamo (DC generator) in 1887 where the windings for the armature (the part that spun) were wound by a machine instead of by hand which made construction faster. In addition, the field coils (the coils that magnetized the armature) were wound in large loops around iron plating (called ironclad design) instead of small loops around iron poles. The “Eickemeyer winding” was very popular in that it was more compact and used less iron, instantly Eickemeyer was a big player in the small emerging field of electrical engineers. 

Then, in February 1888, an ex-Edison employee named Frank Sprague used his development of a constant-speed DC motor with regenerative braking to install a large electric street rail system in Richmond, Virginia. This started a wave of interest in electric motors, as, at the time, only the very wealthy could afford indoor electricity, but almost everyone rode the public bus. Soon there was a boom of companies vying to replace horse-driven buses with electric ones. As Sprague’s motor wore down quickly and the brakes were so loud that you could hear them two miles away, Eickemeyer joined forces with an engineer named Stephen Field to make a quieter and more stable motor for electric trains, which they mostly ended up using for elevators.

Then, Eickemeyer also became interested in AC and AC motors. What probably happened is that in April 1890 Westinghouse found that Tesla’s AC motor could not start from a standstill with a heavy load which would make it useless for a trolley motor, which left an opening for someone else. In fact, a spy for the Sprague company wrote that “Mr. Westinghouse has not in Pittsburgh a single continuous motor under construction. They have one alternating current experiment, which is a failure, and Mr. Westinghouse has quarreled with Mr. Tesla [misspelled Mr. Tessler] who invented the alternate current motor.” This note made its way to Edison (which is how I found it, as Edison kept EVERYTHING), so it is not outside the realm of possibility to think that Eickemeyer knew that Tesla’s AC motor was not being produced too. Or maybe there was some other reason, but either way, Eickemeyer began to research AC motors in 1890.

By this time Steinmetz had worked his way up to being Eickemeyer’s right-hand man and Eickemeyer threw his and Steinmetz’s “hat” in the AC motor ring. Steinmetz excitedly wrote to his father that the AC motor they were working on was a “joint invention” between him and the “old man” and should work better than Teslas for streetcars. Their design used a battery to create a constant magnet and then used the force between the AC electromagnets and the DC electromagnets to spin. Supposedly, it worked “perfectly” at 33 Hz but stopped being efficient at high frequencies, especially the 125-133 Hz commonly used at the time.

Meanwhile, Steinmetz and his friend Oscar Asmussen lived in such squaller in their Harlem apartment that they soon attracted a whole family of mice living in their never used stove. It soon got out of hand but Steinmetz refused to kill their “pets” so they just decided to move and leave them to the next tenant to deal with! Soon, they collected enough money from their jobs for Asmussen to defy his uncle and send for his Swiss girlfriend to come to New York. Steinmetz then decided that it was a good time to move in with another friend who lived closer to his work, although they remained close friends. 

Steinmetz liked America very much and wrote his father, “I am very satisfied to have left the narrow living conditions of Germany and to have come here where a reasonable man can live reasonably and succeed.” Although Steinmetz still dreamed of being a mathematician, he recalled, “Gradually, I drifted out of pure mathematics, to my very great regret; but engineering now occupied all my time.”

Magnetic Hysteresis AKA Magnetic Lag

Steinmetz describes his law of hysteresis in an 1892 article in the Transactions of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers 

It was at around this time that Steinmetz read about something called magnetic hysteresis, or magnetic lag, which explained why AC transformers appeared to violate Ohm’s law. Back in 1861, a man named Philip Reis invented the crude telephone. Four years later, a British/American scientist and inventor named David Hughes improved it tremendously although Hughes never patented it and instead used it for physics studies. By 1879, Hughes noted that “in experimenting with the microphone I had ample occasion to appreciate the exquisite sensitiveness of the telephone to minute induced currents,” which inspired him to make a “perfect induction balance [which] allows us to obtain direct comparative measures of the force or disturbances produced by the introduction of any metal or conductor.” Hughes’ results then inspired a Scottish engineer and professor named James Alfred Ewing to study magnetism in detail with the Hughes meter. This is how Ewing realized that metals in an electrified coil take a short amount of time to reach their full magnetic power and a similar amount of time for the metals to lose their magnetism when the current was removed, an effect he called hysteresis, for the Greek ‘to be behind.’

Not only did Steinmetz realize that this “magnetic lag” could explain the Physics of AC transformers, but it could also affect how efficient the transformers were. By 1890, Steinmetz had made his first equation for power loss due to hysteresis and in 1892, Steinmetz determined that due to hysteresis the transformer’s efficiency was dependent on the frequency. In addition, Steinmetz found that the number of eddy currents (or currents swirling around the wrong direction) also depended on the frequency, so that for a set voltage, the loss on a line was higher for AC than for DC. These laws finally explained why so many had experimentally discovered that lower frequency had less loss in transmission. His talk in January 1892 was a huge hit. The Electrical Engineer magazine said that they had seen many important papers there, “but we believe that none of more absorbing interest and practical utility has been presented to the Institute than that of Mr. Charles P. Steinmetz last week on the Law of Hysteresis.”  

As a biographer of Steinmetz recalled, Steinmetz’s work on hysteresis demonstrated, “an important characteristic of engineering theory; its status midway between physics and ad hoc design rules. Steinmetz’s equations gave values less accurate than those obtained by calculating the area under a hysteresis curve- the method used in physics. But it was more accurate than the rules of thumb engineers had used to design electrical machinery before Steinmetz’s work.” We still use Steinmetz’s laws to this very day.

Then, on April 15, 1892, the financier J. P. Morgan orchestrated a coup by merging Edison’s company with another, firing Edison, and dropping Edison’s name from the “Edison General Electric Company” making it into plain “General Electric” or GE. Morgan then turned to purchase as many electrical companies as he could. By December 1892, Eickemeyer sold his patents to GE, and Steinmetz, as well as all of Eickemeyer’s employees, became GE workers.  

Steinmetz seemed resigned to being part of a massive conglomerate. He wrote his old friend Lux in Germany, “That is the way it is here now – only the two giant companies, General Electric and Westinghouse can make use of inventions.” Steinmetz added that he had preferred to work for Westinghouse but he didn’t fight it as he assumed that, “it is only a matter of time as to when G.E. and Westinghouse will combine.”  

GE never combined with Westinghouse, but Steinmetz found it to be the perfect company for him, and one where he revolutionized electricity 

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