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Charles Proteus Steinmetz (1865-1923)

From Mary Bellis,
Your Guide to Inventors.
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Charles Proteus Steinmetz developed theories on alternating current.

"No man really becomes a fool until he stops asking questions" - Charles Proteus Steinmetz

Charles Proteus Steinmetz was a giant of a pioneer in the field of electrical engineering, who invented a commercially successful alternating current motor. Only four feet tall in real life, his middle name Proteus, was named after the Greek god who could take on any shape or size.


Charles Steinmetz was born in Breslau, Prussia on April 9, 1865. Breslau is now the city Wroclaw, Poland. He studied in Breslau, Zurich and Berlin. Shortly after receiving his Ph.D. in 1888, Steinmetz was forced to flee Germany after writing a paper critizing the German government. Charles Steinmetz was an active socialist and held strong anti-racist beliefs. He immigrated to the United States in 1893 and was hired by the General Electric Company in Schenectady, New York.

Almost Turned Away

Charles Steinmetz was almost turned away at Ellis Island while trying to immigrate to America. Because he was a dwarf, immigration officers considered Steinmetz medically unfit. However, his travelling companion vouched that Steinmetz was a rich mathematical genius.

Patenting Alternating Current

After studying alternating current for a number of years, Charles Steinmetz patented a "system of distribution by alternating current" (A/C power), on January 29, 1895.

Steinmetz retired as an engineer from General Electric to teach electrical engineering at that city's Union College in 1902. General Electric later called back as a consultant. He had worked on a very complex system that was broken. No one could fix it no matter how hard the technicians tried. So they got Steinmetz back. He traced the systems and found the malfunctioning part and marked it with a piece of chalk.

Pay the Bill

Charles Steinmetz submitted a bill for $10,000 dollar. The General Electric managers were taken back and asked for an itemized invoice.

He sent back the following invoice:
Making chalk mark $1
Knowing where to place it $9,999

Charles Steinmetz died on October 26, 1923 and at the time of his death, held over 200 patents.

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