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David Nightingale: Steinmetz (4/9/1865 - 10/26/1923 )

When 24 yr old Steinmetz arrived in New York harbor in 1889 he was nearly turned back. His frail and stunted body, his inability to speak English, plus no money, caused the immigration officials to reject him, for fear he might become a "public charge". Fortunately, the friend he had travelled with, who could speak English, assured the officials that he would personally look after him, and cover any debts, adding that Steinmetz had graduated in mathematics at the top of his class, in the Prussian city of Breslau (now part of Poland).

 So this essay is about Charles Proteus Steinmetz, actually born Karl August Rudolf Steinmetz, in 1865.

 Many people have heard a story about Steinmetz, probably apocryphal, that in one of Henry Ford's plants some huge generators had gone wrong, and Steinmetz had been summoned from General Electric. He solved it, placing a chalk mark on the offending field coils, but the bill had been $10,000 --  which raised eyebrows, and Steinmetz was asked for an itemization. He submitted "$1 for the chalk, and $9,999 for knowing where to put it."

 Steinmetz had been born deformed, with thin fragile legs and a large head. His father, deformed but less so, was a lithographer employed by the railroad system in Breslau. Young Karl was spoiled by his parents and showed inquisiteveness about everything, making things out of whatever was handy, such as candles and string. If anyone stopped the boy, he would fly into a rage, but he was a very much cherished child.

Within 2 weeks of arriving in America, Steinmetz, as yet hardly able to speak any English, was hired by the bi-lingual inventor Rudolf Eichemeyer, who, conversing in German, quickly recognized his mathematical skills. For his part, Steinmetz, who only wanted to work, was delighted to be offered the job of draughtsman for Eichemayer's company in Yonkers, at $12 a week, and spent literally all his waking hours solving the problems that Eichemeyer fed him. One of his first developments was a deep study of the phenomenon in electromagnetism of hysteresis. The 'Steinmetz equation' describes power losses due to hysteresis.

The GE company emerged from the Edison General Electric Company, and as we know, has over the years experienced both good and bad press. The latter includes discharge of PCBs into the Hudson and recent revelations of paying no Federal taxes; the former might be that the company has a long record of research making excellent products, be they refrigerators, wind turbines, or solar power generators.

Steinmetz writes, in his 1916 book America and the New Epoch :  "... as a [student] Socialist  [in Breslau] ... I took  an active part in the .... war of the German social democracy against Bismarck ... and succeeded in escaping [first] to Switzerland, [and] when the government tried to arrest me... to America."  [Ref.1, p.212]

That socialism remained with him his entire life, even as President of the Board of Education in Schenectady.

How did he get from near rejection as an immigrant to a lifetime as a GE researcher? In a nutshell, it was his love of mathematics. He used to say that GE only required about half an hour a day of work -- and the remaining 10, 12, 14 hrs was spent enjoying himself in mathematics.

"Theory and Calculations of AC Phenomena", with E.J.Berg, came out in 1897, when he had only been in America 8 years and had taught himself English -- no mean feat. McGraw-Hill published its 6th Impression of the book in 1917. Meanwhile his "Engineering Mathematics" came out in 1911.

Photographs of Steinmetz always show him with a thin, cheap cigar, and as GE went on employing him, he was paid well enough to build his own house in Schenectady -- where he kept cacti, pets, and a 3 foot alligator -- khe also had a camp on a tributary to the Mohawk river. There is a photograph of him on his little canoe, specially equipped with a ledge on which to rest his notebooks. [Ref.2, p.178]

 Steinmetz had no family, but offered his house to a young engineer who had befriended him, and who brought his wife and 3 kids; these became Steinmetz' family. He died at age 58, in 1923.



 1.  "Pioneers of Freedom" by McAlister Coleman; Books for Libraries Press, Freeport, NY, 1929 , reprinted 1968.

2.  "Loki: The Life of Steinmetz" by Jonathan Norton Leonard; Doubleday, Garden City, NY, 1929.


Dr. David Nightingale is Professor Emeritus of Physics at the State University of New York at New Paltz, and is the co-author of the text, A Short Course in General Relativity.


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