Charles Proteus Steinmetz, the Wizard of Schenectady
Born in 1865 in Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland), Carl August Rudolph Steinmetz became a brilliant student of mathematics and chemistry at the University of Breslau, but he was forced to flee the country after the authorities became interested in his involvement with the Socialist Party. He arrived at Ellis Island in 1888 and was nearly turned away because he was a dwarf, but an American friend whom Steinmetz was traveling with convinced immigration officials that the young German Ph.D. was a genius whose presence would someday benefit all of America. In just a few years, Steinmetz would prove his American friend right.
Steinmetz Americanised his name to Charles Steinmetz. He chose Proteus as his middle name—the nickname his professors in Germany had affectionately bestowed upon him in recognition of the shape-shifting sea god. In Greek mythology, Proteus was a cave-dwelling prophetic old man who always returned to his human form—that of a hunchback. Steinmetz thoroughly enjoyed the comparison.
In 1894 he arrived in Schenectady, the place he would call home for the next thirty years, and his impact at General Electric was immediate. Using complex mathematical equations, Steinmetz developed ways to analyze values in alternating current circuits. His discoveries changed the way engineers thought about circuits and machines and made him the most recognized name in electricity for decades.
Before long, the greatest scientific minds of the time were traveling to Schenectady to meet with the prolific “little giant”; anecdotal tales of these meetings are still told in engineering classes today. One appeared on the letters page of Life magazine in 1965, after the magazine had printed a story on Steinmetz. Jack B. Scott wrote in to tell of his father’s encounter with the Wizard of Schenectady at Henry Ford’s River Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan.
Ford, whose electrical engineers couldn’t solve some problems they were having with a gigantic generator, called Steinmetz in to the plant. Upon arriving, Steinmetz rejected all assistance and asked only for a notebook, pencil and cot. According to Scott, Steinmetz listened to the generator and scribbled computations on the notepad for two straight days and nights. On the second night, he asked for a ladder, climbed up the generator and made a chalk mark on its side. Then he told Ford’s skeptical engineers to remove a plate at the mark and replace sixteen windings from the field coil. They did, and the generator performed to perfection.
Henry Ford was thrilled until he got an invoice from General Electric in the amount of $10,000. Ford acknowledged Steinmetz’s success but balked at the figure. He asked for an itemized bill.
Steinmetz, Scott wrote, responded personally to Ford’s request with the following:
Making chalk mark on generator $1.
Knowing where to make mark $9,999.
Ford paid the bill.