|November 1, 1998|
Charles Steinmetz: Union's electrical wizard
He was a small man whose body was contorted by a hunchback that shriveled his torso and enlarged his head to proportions that he always felt frightened children. Thin-skinned and defensive as a young man, he grew to be one of his age's most inventive and brilliant scientific intellectuals. And, like Thomas Edison and Babe Ruth, no newspaper or magazine of the time needed to identify his picture for him to recognized.
He was the Wizard of Schenectady, Charles Proteus Steinmetz, who died seventy-five years ago this year. Mathematician, General Electric's chief engineer, Union College professor, theoretical scientist -- he used all of those interests to craft a vision of American socialism, and in doing so, furthered corporate capitalism.
The Steinmetz legend says that the young mathematics student arrived in America on May 20, 1889, after fleeing the German government's efforts to imprison him for his socialist activities.
Well, sort of.
While a student in Germany, Steinmetz joined the Socialist Party, becoming friendly with several prominent socialists who were pursued by authorities for challenging the government. And it is true that the authorities became increasingly interested in Steinmetz because of those friendships.
Cornell University Professor Ronald R. Kline, the author of Steinmetz: Engineer and Socialist, contends 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.
A benefactor enabled Steinmetz to settle in Zurich, Switzerland and enroll in the Swiss Federal Polytechnic Institute. He entered a three-year program that emphasized the theoretical principles of civil, electrical, and mechanical engineering. That course of study produced Steinmetz's first scientific papers -- on the apparent resistance of a current-carrying conductor and a mathematical theory of the transformer. It also spawned his "intellectual shift from the fields of mathematics and physics to the 'science-based' discipline of electrical engineering," wrote Kline.
Steinmetz arrived in America at the age of twenty-four and within a few years earned an international reputation as an expert on alternating current. Two of his papers -- his theories of AC circuits and his experiments on magnetic hysteresis (the tendency of a material to resist being magnetized or demagnetized) came to the attention of General Electric, and he joined the company in 1893 at its Lynn, Mass., factory.
Steinmetz worked furiously to establish his worth to the company. His most important accomplishment -- the work that became his most lasting contribution to electrical engineering -- was his development of a mathematical method of analyzing alternating current circuits using complex numbers. His method "changed the way engineers calculated AC circuits and machines," said Kline in a recent interview, and is still used in all types of engineering. Steinmetz spent the rest of his life applying the method to the entire range of AC circuits and machines.
His progress up the corporate status ladder was swift. Seeing a symbiotic relationship between corporations and socialism, he quickly learned to couch the most strident socialism in terms that supported his bosses' capitalistic livelihood. "His form of socialism was very conservative," Kline says. "I think it's an open question whether capitalism has evolved the way he thought it would. There is a kind of a corporate commonwealth now, and he did think that there would be something between socialism and capitalism that would have to evolve first."
Steinmetz was prolific. Before 1900, he applied for more than seventy patents on transformers, induction motors, alternators, and rotary converters. By 1900, he was GE's chief consulting engineer, moving out of the daily administrative fray and free to devote himself to his research. Between 1903 and 1913, he took out sixty-three patents and wrote several textbooks, including his magnum opus, Theory and Calculation of Transcient Phenomena and Oscillations (1909). It was the classic on surges in AC circuits and machines; he would later count that work among his three major technical accomplishments, the other two being his research on magnetic hysteresis and the development of the complex number method.
Near the end of 1902, he was appointed the part-time head of the Electrical Engineering Department at Union, a position he happily held for ten years (he was professor of electro-physics from 1913 to 1923). He was able to combine classroom teaching and mentoring at Union each morning with laboratory work for GE at his home each afternoon.
His approach to education showed a great belief in the liberal arts. To Steinmetz, the purpose of education was to "make a man able to make the best use of himself and for human society at large." To achieve that, he said, "a man needs an extensive knowledge and understanding of all matters in which human society is interested; ... Education is a knowledge of history, languages, literature and science, mathematics and engineering. Strictly technical training, therefore, is not education. It is a very small part of it."
A colleague later described Steinmetz's teaching methods like this:
"He always began with simple concepts and then proceeded step-by-step to the more difficult and involved ideas. Like many another brilliant man, he had trouble realizing that all his students could not immediately see how logical the steps were. But unlike some other brilliant lecturers, he had great patience in answering students' questions at the breaks and at the end of his lectures, and even at his home in the evening.
"His willingness to help students with their work was almost a fault. This warmth toward students was reciprocated when members of Phi Gamma Delta fraternity invited him to become a brother."
During his Union years, the media and the public began their infatuation with Schenectady's scientific wizard. Reporters from newspapers and magazines clamored for interviews and photographs of Steinmetz at work.
In 1916 he built a lightning generator whose power came the closest to reaching the estimated energy of a real lightning discharge, a discovery that helped electrical corporations create efficient, cost-effective devices that harnessed electricity for industrial use. The newspapers loved it, with headlines calling him "Modern Jove" and "The Thunderer" after the ancient god of lightning and thunder.
And General Electric's publicity machine loved it, too, but for more than the immediate good news value. GE used Steinmetz and his lightning generator to promote a massive advertising campaign to sell electrical consumer goods based on their utility, safety, and modernity. The universal electrification of America had begun.
Amazingly, while working so hard at creating electrical apparatus, Steinmetz maintained a rich and active social life full of friends, cards and practical jokes. His friend and colleague at GE and Union, Ernst J. Berg, wrote in 1934 that "it seems extraordinary that so much real work was done because we played so much."
During those first years in Schenectady, Steinmetz and his friends got into "all kinds" of mischief, according to Berg. "Sometimes we would be busy at night shifting signs so that in the morning the dispenser of beer would find a dry goods sign over his door and vice versa.
"A swimming race was our chief sport. I recall one when we went swimming dressed in frock coats and silk hats. Then we had sailing, rowing, and canoe races very frequently, and Steinmetz was the starter and official recorder. I can see him now, pistol in hand, proud and happy," wrote Berg.
Steinmetz had an eye for the girls. He and his house mates often gave dances at their home "and Steinmetz would usually pick out the prettiest girl and, with her, watch from the staircase, our antics in the hall," wrote Berg.
His home in Schenectady had a menagerie that included a nest of owls, several alligators, a raccoon, two black crows, and a temperamental Gila monster. His spacious conservatory was filled with rare and prickly cacti, and he often spent hours sitting among these plants, puffing on a cigar and looking into space.
Steinmetz's celebrity helped enormously when he reactivated his political life and his membership in the Socialist Party in 1911. The party's ranks had grown to more than 88,000 nationwide with Socialist mayors in 74 cities, including Schenectady. Steinmetz allied himself with the constructive wing of the Party, which advocated slow, step-at-a-time reforms.
Schenectady's socialist mayor appointed Steinmetz to the Board of Education in 1912. He was elected president at its first meeting. Steinmetz threw himself into the board's work, just as he had done with his engineering. During his two terms, the board made good on the Socialist administration's promise to provide "One Seat for Every Child" by passing $800,000 in bond issues. The money built three new schools and enlarged three others. He also succeeded in winning free school supplies, more playgrounds, and improvements to medical care for students.
In 1913 Steinmetz became president of the city's board of parks and city planning. He carried out his party's desire for more city parks accessible to Schenectady's working class by securing a bond issue and recommending the purchase of three properties for parks; oddly, one park had to be pushed through the process using the mayor's political clout because local party members felt it would benefit the middle and upper class more than the workers.
Despite his efforts, by 1922 Steinmetz concluded that socialism would never work in America 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."
Steinmetz made a number of predictions -- including air conditioning, television, central power stations, and solar energy as "the greatest of all energies" -- and he lived long enough to see some come to pass, such as the electrification of industry and the proliferation of radios and electrical appliances in the home.
But he was not infallible. His final obsession was advocating the use of electric vehicles. He allowed investors to form the Steinmetz Electric Motor Car Co. in 1920 to produce an "industrial truck" and a lightweight "delivery car." The company planned to produce 1,000 trucks and 300 cars. The first electrical Steinmetz truck hit the road in early 1922 by climbing a steep hill in Brooklyn as a publicity stunt. In October, the company claimed to have developed a five-passenger coupe.
The company folded shortly after Steinmetz's death when a lawsuit from a shareholder revealed that the company had misrepresented the number of cars being produced.
Steinmetz, GE's unlikely Wizard of Science, died of heart failure on Oct. 26, 1923.
His legacy included a number of inventions that covered the field of electrical applications -- generators, motors, transformers, lightning arrestors, lighting, heating, and electrochemical operations.
With all of these inventions, however, it was as an analytical thinker that he made perhaps his greatest achievement -- his formulation of a clear mathematical concept that finally simplified alternating current theory to the point where it could be understood and used by all engineers. This work opened the way to the transmission of electric power in useful quantities over long distances.
Kline, the author of Steinmetz: Engineer and Socialist, says Steinmetz's work is universally useful because it "doesn't depend on the kind of apparatus being used." It is fundamental work that every engineer must know and use, even in a world where computers can do much of the design work previously done by men like Steinmetz.