Mathematician, engineer and inventor Charles Proteus Steinmetz was responsible during the latter part of the 19th and early part of the 20th century for solving a number of problems related to the generation and transmission of electricity, at a critical time in history rife with developments that formed the technological characteristics of the modern, "wired" world.
Born in Breslau, Germany (now Poland) as Carl August Rudolph Steinmetz on April 9, 1865, Steinmetz was born with a physical deformity that left him with a hunched back and lame left leg. He was not hindered by this disability; rather, he excelled in his studies and attended the University of Breslau where he impressed many with his superior memory and ability to solve complex mathematical problems. He also became interested in the developing area of electricity. While in college, he joined the Socialist Club and began editing the "People's Voice" Socialist newspaper. Because of his affiliation with the Socialist party, he fled to Switzerland in 1888 to avoid being arrested by German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. In 1889, he emigrated to the United States, arriving in New York in June of that year.
An American engineer and friend, Rudolph Eickenmeyer, offered Steinmetz a job at his company, Osterheld and Eickenmeyer, in Yonkers, New York, where Steinmetz quickly gained a reputation as a wunderkind of sorts. Eickenmeyer, having been asked to work on a client's proposal to run trolley cars by electricity using alternating current, asked Steinmetz to devote himself to this problem. One of the challenges was to minimize AC, or alternating current, power loss to make AC motors and generators efficient, this at a time when DC, or direct current, prevailed. Steinmetz, who altered his name in an effort to become more "American," began researching the laws of magnetic hysteresis, which refers to the delay in the change of the magnetic field that occurs each time the alternating current that creates this field reverses, resulting in loss of power.
Steinmetz established a fundamental law of magnetism known as the "Law of Hysteresis" (or, "Steinmetz's Law") that was published in the American Institute of Electrical Engineering's "Electrical Engineer" magazine in 1892. At the age of 27, he became well known in his field for this discovery, which for the first time allowed engineers to calculate and minimize losses of electric power due to magnetism in their designs. This would lead to feasibility of AC being widely used in place of direct current, which was limited in that it was inefficient to transmit over long-distance power lines. High-voltage AC, however, could carry electricity hundreds of miles with the use of a transformer, which can make low-voltage current into high-voltage current, and vice versa.
Thomas Edison had founded the General Electric Company in 1886 and hired Steinmetz in 1893, sending him first to the plant in Lynn, Massachusetts and then to Schenectady, New York, where he served as a consulting engineer for the rest of his life. As head of the calculating department and later head of the engineering consulting group, he invented a number of devices including an efficient AC generator, the three-phase electrical circuit, and the metallic electrode arc lamp. Over a period of 20 years he authored volumes on the theory of alternating current and created an impressive body of work on the subject, which has been used to teach engineering students ever since.
He became very active in the local community as well, heading up the School of Electrical Engineering at Union College from 1902 to 1913 and continuing to teach there until 1923. He is said to have served the college for 21 years without remuneration. He also served as president of the Common Council in Schenectady when Socialist James Lunn became mayor. Steinmetz also served six years on the Schenectady Board of Education, four of them as its president.
He never married but he loved and kept many animals and adopted a son, who bore him three grandchildren. From 1901 to 1902, Steinmetz served as president of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers. Also in 1901 he was awarded an honorary degree from Harvard University and, in 1903, Union College awarded him a Ph.D.
Later in his career, Steinmetz studied lightning and its effects on newly built AC power lines. And in 1920, he formed the Steinmetz Electric Motor Car Co. In Brooklyn, New York, to design electric vehicles. The company's first electric truck hit the road in 1922. Sadly, after Steinmetz died on October 26, 1923, the company folded.
In 1977 Steinmetz was posthumously inducted into the National Inventor's Hall of Fame, cited for his invention of a "System of Distribution by Alternating Currents" (U.S. Patent No. 533,244). He earned more than 200 patents during the course of his lifetime.