Charles Proteus Steinmetz receives a patent for a "system of distribution by alternating currents." His engineering work makes it practical to build a widespread power grid for use in lighting and machinery alike.
Steinmetz was born Carl August Rudolph Steinmetz in Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland) on April 9, 1865 (the day Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox to end the U.S. Civil War). While a university student, he wrote for a so******t newspaper and had to flee Germany in 1888 during an anti-radical crackdown. After a stop in Switzerland, he arrived in the United States in 1889.
Rudolph Eickenmeyer hired the young engineer to work on a project to run streetcars on alternating current. Steinmetz wanted to minimize the power loss, or hysteresis, caused by the reversing magnetic fields of AC circuits.
A brilliant mathematician, he managed to figure out the law governing hysteresis
and published it in 1891 in The Electrical Engineer. Steinmetz garnered instant fame among his peers, and the constant in his equation remains in use today.
He also developed mathematical models for predicting the performance of complex circuits, so electrical engineers didn't have to build every system first to check out how it would perform. He explained his new methods to the International Electrical Congress in 1893.
After the new General Electric Co. bought Eickenmeyer's company that year, Steinmetz was transferred to its headquarters in Schenectady, New York. Thomas Edison
was still sticking rigidly to direct-current electricity, but GE competitor George Westinghouse
had bought Nikola Tesla's patents for alternating current
. GE placed its bet on AC and Steinmetz.
Building on his own work and Tesla's, Steinmetz completed his patent application March 31, 1894, and submitted it two days later:The system resembles in some respects the ordinary alternating single-phase distribution systems such as are now used extensively for lighting purposes, but by the present invention I render such a system capable of operating multiphase motors as well as lamps without the necessity of installing special multiphase generators for the motors or running special circuits.
(.pdf) was approved Jan. 29, 1895. Steinmetz was ready to electrify the nation — and the world.
Steinmetz was an avid cigar smoker who hosted a regular poker game for his GE colleagues. He called it "The Society for the Adjustment of Salaries."
Steinmetz retired from GE for a faculty position at Union College in Schenectady, but GE still called him back now and then as a consultant to solve difficult problems. Once, while troubleshooting a malfunctioning apparatus, Steinmetz painstakingly traced the problem to the element that wasn't working, and then marked it with chalk. When he submitted a bill for $10,000
(more than $100,000 in today's money), GE asked him to itemize the charges.
He sent them this invoice:Making chalk mark: $1
Knowing where to place it: $9,999
Steinmetz held more than 200 patents when he died in 1923.
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