Apr 25th 2018

Charles Steinmetz Electrifies the Modern World


While maybe not as familiar as the “Wizard of Menlo Park” or “The Man Who Invented the 20th Century,” Charles Steinmetz stands alongside giants like Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla. In the wake of his 153rd birthday, we celebrate Steinmetz’s genius and his contributions to electricity and engineering that helped usher in the modern era.

Charles Steinmetz was born Carl August Rudolph Steinmetz on April 9, 1865, in Breslau, Germany — now Wroclaw, Poland — with a physical deformity that left him with a hunched back, stunted torso and uneven gait. However, this never prevented Steinmetz from great success. He was considered a brilliant student and was recognized for his work in mathematics and chemistry at the University of Breslau, according to Smithsonian Magazine.

Steinmetz would flee to America in 1888 due to his affiliation with the Socialist Party. His work in Yonkers, New York, gained the attention of Thomas Edison and would make the widespread adoption of alternating current more practical.

Harnessing Electricity

Thomas Edison was losing the “war of the currents” to Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse in the 1880s, reports Smithsonian Magazine. Edison backed direct current, while Tesla championed the cheaper AC current to power electrical grids. Tesla won several high-profile contracts, including the power for the Chicago World’s Fair and a bid to generate energy from Niagara Falls in 1893, notes the U.S. Department of Energy.

While this battle took place on a national level, Steinmetz was working at Eickemeyer and Osterheld in upstate New York. The mathematician was tasked with powering trolley cars using AC. Steinmetz had to solve the power loss, or hysteresis, associated with AC. If he could figure out how to minimize power loss, motors and transformers would become more efficient, and AC could be used across great distances.

Steinmetz in the early 1900’s (Wikimedia Commons)

In 1891, Steinmetz discovered the laws governing hysteresis, which made AC and DC electrical systems more efficient, reports Wired. Edison and General Electric — recognizing the work Steinmetz was doing in Yonkers — bought Eickemeyer and Osterheld in 1892. The deal included Steinmetz and all the patents created by him.

By 1894, GE hired Steinmetz to solve their most complex electricity problems. He patented an AC distribution system based on the principles he and Tesla established — see the patent here. Steinmetz would also patent new AC motors, generators and a three-phase electrical system.

One of Steinmetz’s most impressive inventions was inspired by a shattered mirror. After piecing the mirror together, he noticed a pattern that could be associated with the electrical discharge of lightning. Steinmetz went back to work at GE, where he created artificial lightning using 120,000-volt generators. Steinmetz’s work would be used to protect power lines from lightning strikes, reports the Smithsonian Magazine.

Teaching Electricity

Electrical engineers can thank Steinmetz for developing an AC circuit model. Prior to his revelation, anyone interested in analyzing AC circuits needed to start at the very beginning and develop complex mathematical equations. Steinmetz solved that problem, and engineers could focus on answering their questions or problems without having to develop a new system from scratch. Some of the greatest minds went to Steinmetz to request his expertise. These luminaries included Albert Einstein and Henry Ford, notes Smithsonian Magazine.

Although he still served as a consultant at GE, Steinmetz began teaching the next generation of electrical engineers at Union College. Steinmetz’s papers and textbooks became a curriculum staple and required reading for any aspiring engineer.

Charles Steinmetz died on Oct. 26, 1923, at the age of 58, though his legacy lives on at Union College. Every year, they host the annual Steinmetz Symposium to celebrate student research.

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