Posted on Nov 1, 1998

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

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

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.,

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

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

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

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,

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.