Charles Proteus Steinmetz, Inventor

     On February 1893 the following notice appeared in the Yonkers Statesman—“Leaving Yonkers. I wish herewith to say goodbye to all my friends. Charles Proteus Steinmetz.”

Charles Steinmetz Charles Steinmetz was born in Breslau, Germany on April 9, 1865, five days before Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. Steinmetz’ early school performance was poor and at the age of eight he was having trouble with multiplication tables. However, by the time he was ten, he had made a turnaround and was one of the school’s brightest pupils. Charles later attended the University of Breslau where he joined the Socialist Club because he thought the humble of the world should share the world’s riches. He also liked the Socialist Club’s parties. Because of Socialism’s unpopularity with German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, Steinmetz had to flee Germany for Switzerland and later came to the United States with his friend, Oscar Asmussen. Arriving in New York harbor on June 1, 1889, a customs official looked at the penniless four–foot three–inch tall, deformed twenty–four year old Steinmetz, who also had a swollen face from a temporary illness, and told him to step aside, he was going to be sent back to Germany.

Waving his own money and claiming it was Steinmetz’s, Oscar informed the customs official that his friend was a – mathematical genius and rich, so the official relented. A letter of introduction to Rudolph Eickenmeyer, a leading American electrical engineer, obtained a job for Charles Steinmetz at the Osterheld and Eickenmeyer Company in Yonkers. When Otis needed a more powerful motor to lift his elevator to higher floors, Steinmetz designed the motor. When Stephen Field, nephew of Cyrus Field of Atlantic Cable fame, approached Eickenmeyer with a proposal to run trolley cars by electricity using alternating current, Steinmetz was called upon. When the transfer from direct current to alternating current was made, there was a slight delay, slight, but long enough to cause the motor to overheat. Working in Eickenmeyer’s laboratory and at his residence at 124 Waverly Street in Yonkers, Steinmetz solved the problem mathematically and his solution became known as the “Law of Hysteresis” or “Steinmetz’s Law.”

On December 8, 1891 the Law of Hysteresis was explained in the magazine, The Electrical Engineer, and on January 19, 1892 it was the topic of a speech by Steinmetz to the American Institute of Electrical Engineers in New York City.

Thomas A. Edison and Steinmetz

Thomas Edison founded the General Electric Company in 1886 and wanted to hire Steinmetz. When offered a job, he told the company representative that his loyalty was to his employer, Rudolph Eickenmeyer. General Electric bought all of, Eickenmeyer’s patents and sent its new employee, Steinmetz, to the General Electric plant in Lynn, Massachusetts, thus the letter of goodbye in the Yonkers Statesman

In 1894 Steinmetz was transferred to the main General Electric plant at Schenectady, New York. His original residence in Schenectady is still standing at 53 Washington Street.

At Schenectady he built a campsite on the Mohawk River. During the summer he would work in a canoe, sailing up and down the river. Boards would be placed from gunwale to gunwale to serve as a desk, and he would kneel on a cushion in the canoe doing mathematical calculations. He enjoyed inviting guests to the camp on weekends and usually entertained from six to eight people, especially enjoying the company of children. As host he enjoyed doing the cooking, but refused to do dishes, which became the guests’ chore. In fact he would take out all of the dishes from the past several days for the guests to wash. When the camp was hit by lightening, Steinmetz invented a way to produce lightening so that he could study it. When he died in 1923 the camp was purchased by Henry Ford who had it moved to Dearborn Institute in Michigan.

In 1903 Steinmetz was approached by Andrew Raymond, president of Union College in Schenectady and asked if he would give some assistance to the school. From 1902 to 1913 Steinmetz headed the School of Electrical Engineering and guided it in becoming one of the best in the nation. He resigned as head of the department in 1913 but continued teaching at the school until 1923. Over this twenty–one year period he attended all faculty meetings but would not accept remuneration from the school for any of his services. When Phi Gamma Delta needed a new fraternity house he helped raise the funds, and also attended the fraternity parties and spoke each year at the induction ceremony for new members.

When James Lunn, a Socialist, became mayor of Schenectady, Steinmetz served as president of the Common Council and also served six years on the Schenectady Board of Education, four of them as its president. His leadership brought about the building of more schools in order to eliminate the practice of some students attending school for only half a day. The school system hired seven nurses and seven part–time doctors, and special rooms were set aside for the feeding of undernourished students. He worked to have ungraded classes instituted for immigrant children with language problems; five classrooms were set aside for learning disabled pupils, and all primary grade textbooks issued would now be free of charge.

At Christmas every Schenectady orphan received a present paid for by Charles P. Steinmetz, but he never married, fearful that deformed children like himself would be born. He also loved animals and his house was like a zoo with pet crows, squirrels, raccoons, cranes, dogs, a pet monkey named “Jenny,” etc. living there. Neighbors brought injured animals to him to be cared for.

Rarely was he seen without one of his favorite Blackstone panetella cigars. Frequently on Friday nights his colleagues would visit his house at 1297 Wendell Avenue, bullt in the General Electric Plot area where the homes of other General Electric executives had been built. He had formed a club, “The Society for the Adjustment of Salaries.” The members spent the evening and late hours playing draw poker.

After Steinmetz’s death, former President Herbert Hoover headed a committee to raise #25,000 to purchase the house and convert it into a museum. The money was raised but the city and state could not agree on the responsibility for restoring it, so it was torn down in 1938.

Charles P. Steinmetz was considered the leading electrical engineer in the United States. dnd at the age of thirty–seven was elected president of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers. In 1901 Harvard University conferred on him an Honorary Derree. and in 1903 Union College awarded him the degree of Doctor of Philosophy.

In 1977 Steinmetz was inducted into the United States Patent Office’s National Inventor’s Hall of Fame. The three accomplishments that gained him honor were listed as 1) Law of Hysteresis [formulated in Yonkers]; 2) Formula for Alternating Current, and 3) Theory of Electrical Transients. In 1983 the United States Post office issued a postage stamp in his honor and also honored honored with stamp another former Yonkers resident, Edwin H. Armstrong, the inventor of FM Radio. Charles P. Steinmetz once remarked, “I want to say that absolutely all the success I have had has been due to my thorough study of mathematics.”

When Steinmetz died on October 26, 1923 Governor Alfred E. Smith of New York is quoted as saying, “He always wanted to help everybody.” The year 1993 marks the seventieth anniversary of the death of Charles P. Steinmetz and the hundredth anniversary of his farewell message to the City of Yonkers.

—Tom Flynn