In the Loop: Chalk one up for Math

May 1, 2004
When Thomas Edison founded the General Electric Company in 1886, he wanted to staff up as quickly as possible with top engineering talent

When Thomas Edison founded the General Electric Company in 1886, he wanted to staff up as quickly as possible with top engineering talent. Often, that meant buying smaller companies, which is how, seven years later, GE acquired the services of Charles Steinmetz, one of the greatest engineers of all time.

Like Edison, Steinmetz was a prolific inventor. His real strength, however, was his command of mathematics and his ability to develop analytical methods where previous practice was strictly trial-and-error. It’s probably no coincidence that Steinmetz was hammering out the theory for motor-generator design when GE scooped up the Yonkersbased company where Steinmetz was employed.

Steinmetz’ engineering achievements include a method (still used today) for calculating magnetic hysteresis loss, the first quantitative approach (including the math itself) for analyzing single and multi-phase ac systems, and the theory — dealing with electrical transients and traveling waves — that propelled electrical power distribution into the modern age. At the end of his career, Steinmetz said, “all the success I have had has been due to my thorough study of mathematics.” Coming from the witty engineer, the attribution may have been a dig at his boss, Edison, the empiricist, as well.

Now Steinmetz was a most intriguing character. He was only four feet tall, his frame compressed by a physical deformity. Immigration agents almost turned him away at Ellis Island when he arrived in 1889, citing his handicap, inability to speak English, and impoverished state. Were it not for a friend’s intervention, the U.S. would have been denied one of its most influential citizens, the man who put American industry in high gear.

Soon after he immigrated, Steinmetz changed his name from Karl August Rudolf to Charles Proteus. Proteus comes from Greek mythology, the god who can take any shape or size. It’s almost as if, in America, Steinmetz was freed from his handicap.

Steinmetz also enjoyed another new freedom: expressing his political views. He was especially outspoken on social issues like inequalities in pay. He wasn’t the bitter sort, however, relying instead on his sense of humor. For years, he entertained a poker group at his home, calling his social club, which included many GE corporate executives, “The Society for the Adjustment of Salaries.”

Ironically, Steinmetz’ most gratifying moment may have occurred after his retirement. An emergency brought him back to GE’s Schenectady plant to troubleshoot a malfunctioning generator. For days, the hobbled genius pored over drawings with paper and pencil in hand. Finally, he placed a chalk mark on the side of the generator, instructing the repairmen to cut through the casing and remove a number of turns from the stator. It worked.

When asked to submit an invoice, Steinmetz delivered a slip of paper with nothing on it but the surprisingly large figure of $10,000. The accountants, in shock, said they couldn’t process the paperwork without a more detailed breakdown. Steinmetz then forwarded another note on which was typed:

One chalk mark $1

Knowing where to put it $9,999

A short time later, Steinmetz received his pay in full.

Charles Proteus Steinmetz died in his sleep on October 26, 1923, and is buried not far from the Schenectady plant in Vale Cemetery. In eulogy, it was said, “Chapters have been written of his intellectual greatness; many more could be filled with his kindnesses. He was dwarfed, perhaps, in body, but had a heart as big as the universe and a soul as pure as a child’s.”

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