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The Socialistic Capitalist

Charles Proteus Steinmetz’s Patent


   Were you a socialist in your youth? Would you like to be lionized by one of the greatest industrial companies in the greatest capitalist country in the world?  Do not despair, for that is exactly what happened to Charles Proteus Steinmetz.


   Karl August Steinmetz, later known as Charles Proteus Steinmetz, was born on April 8, 1865 into a working class family in Breslau, Germany.  His mother died of cholera a year after Karl’s birth, and this strengthened his father’s determination to see that his son, who had inherited the father’s hunchback deformity, receive a top-notch education.  After attending elementary school and the German gymnasium, Karl entered the University of Breslau and took a variety of preparatory courses in mechanical engineering, political economics, and medicine.  Finally, however, he found his true calling, and gave himself over to the study of mathematics, higher chemistry, and electricity.  It was during his student days that he was given the name “Proteus.”


   However, as stated by Ivan Gerould Grimshaw, in an essay which appears at pages 39-47 of a volume entitled Distinguished American Jews, Philip Henry Lodz, Editor, Association Press, NY 1945  “If ever a man was given a name untrue to his character, Steinmetz, when he was given the name ‘Proteus’ was that man.  For while the fabled sea god Proteus has given us the English adjective protean, which is a synonym for variable and inconstant, neither of these adjectives could honestly be applied to the ‘wizard of Schenectady.’  In only one way might there be a connection.  The fabled sea god had the power of changing himself into an endless variety of forms.  There are no doubt times when Charles Steinmetz envied him that power and wished that he might exchange his own poor misshapen body, with his crooked back and twisted leg, for one more normal.  Yet on the other hand, while heredity had played him a mean trick in the kind of body provided, she had dealt generously with him in the matter of intellect, so to the improving of that he gave himself ceaselessly.”


   Steinmetz spent six years at the University of Breslau, entering in 1883, and demonstrated his brilliance in the areas of electricity and mathematics, a brilliancy which was to remain with him throughout his life.  He prepared a thesis, submitted it to the mathematics department, and had it approved, and even had been informed that it was to be printed in the university mathematics journal.  Yet the brilliant student never received his undergraduate degree.


   He had not confined his activities to his studies alone. In 1888 he wrote an outspoken editorial criticizing the government, the government of Herr Otto von Bismark, the “Iron Chancellor.”  For four years he belonged to a socialist club.  Finally on the eve of his graduation date, he received word that papers had been issued for his arrest, and hastily packing his bags, including his thesis, he fled the country for Zurich, Switzerland.


   Ultimately, he arrived at Ellis Island, a hunchbacked, penniless immigrant, barely speaking a few phrases of English, and was confined to a detention pen in New York.  From there due to the intervention of his Danish friend and traveling companion named Asmussen, he was allowed to enter his new homeland.  Due to good fortune he was able to land a job as a twelve-dollar-a-week draftsman with the firm of Rudolf Eichmeyer, a German speaking manufacturer of hat machinery and electrical devices.  He quickly became a naturalized United States citizen.


   The draftsman did not remain a draftsman for long.  On January 19, 1892, after many long days of hard work, the newly minted American read a paper before the American Institute of Electrical Engineers entitled “The Law of Hysteresis,” the phenomenon by which power is lost because of magnetic resistance.


   In 1893, Steinmetz joined the newly organized General Electric Company in Schenectady, New York when GE acquired Mr. Eichmeyer’s company.  Steinmetz became a consulting engineer, a position which he maintained until his death.  Steinmetz’s hysteresis research led him directly to a study of alternating current, which could eliminate hysteresis loss in motors.  The difficulty was that there was really no theory of alternating current by which the electrical engineer could be guided.  Steinmetz set out to remedy this deficiency.  During the next 20 years he prepared a series of masterful papers and volumes which reduced the theory of alternating current to order.  Steinmetz’s last research was on lightening, which threatened to disrupt the new AC power lines.  Here again he made fundamental contributions.  Some information is available at the National Inventors Hall of Fame website.


   Steinmetz was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1977.  He was honored for U. S. Patent Number 533,744 for a System of Distribution by Alternating Current, although the Hall had some 200 Steinmetz patents from which to choose.  According to the Hall of Fame, “without Charles Steinmetz’s development of theories of alternating current, the expansion the electric power industry in the United States in the early 20th century would have been impossible, or at least greatly delayed.”


   Further, according to John Dos Passos, in a set of book reviews appearing in the New Republic dated December 18, 1929, “They [the institutional men directing General Electric] know in a vague sort of way that they want to make money and they want to make good, most of them want to play the game according to the rules of their time and not to be a worse son-of-a bitch than the next man, but the problem of the readjustment of human values necessary to fit their world is the last thing they think about…  That is why the little crumpled figure of Steinmetz stands out with such extraordinary dignity against this background of practical organizers, rule-of-thumb inventors, patent office quibblers.  Steinmetz felt every moment what his work meant in the terms of the ordinary human being.”


   Finally, several months after Proteus’ death, which was mourned across the country, the following two lines appeared in the General Electric Company’s annual report to the stockholders: “Dr. Charles P. Steinmetz died on October 26, 1923, after thirty years of devoted service to your company.”



Article by Arthur P. Gershman