Charles Steinmetz: Immigrant and Innovator

By Museum of Innovation & Science

Explore the life and achievements of Charles Steinmetz, GE's original chief engineer, who developed the mathematical theory of alternating current and built the first million-volt lightning generator

Steinmetz at age three with grandmother (1868/1869) by General Electric CompanyMuseum of Innovation & Science

Steinmetz was born in Breslau, Germany (today's Wroclaw, Poland) on April 9, 1865. His father worked for the local rail company. As a child, Steinmetz drew pictures of trains, and built castles with building blocks. Here, young Steinmetz is pictured with his grandmother.

Steinmetz with student socialists (1887/1888) by General Electric CompanyMuseum of Innovation & Science

Charles Steinmetz and his colleagues at the University of Breslau pose for a student group picture. It was Steinmetz's activities with and writings for the socialist movement, that drew the German police's attention to him, leading to his eventual emigration to the United States.

Portrait of Charles Steinmetz taken in Yonkers (1889/1890) by General Electric CompanyMuseum of Innovation & Science

This portrait of Charles Steinmetz was created shortly after his arrival in the United States in 1889. Steinmetz took a job with Eickmeyer, a company producing hat making machinery that expanded into streetcar motors.

Elihu Thomson and Charles Steinmetz, Boston, 1893 (1893/1893) by General Electric CompanyMuseum of Innovation & Science

Steinmetz (right), poses with electrical pioneer and GE co-founder Elihu Thomson on a street in Boston, Massachusetts. GE purchased Eickmeyer, and moved Steinmetz to Lynn, MA.

GE Calculating Department, 1893 (1893/1893) by General Electric CompanyMuseum of Innovation & Science

General Electric Calculating Department, Lynn, Massachusetts. Charles Steinmetz is seated second from right. the department was responsible for making the calculations for motor and generator designs.

Our House, 1895 (1895/1895) by General Electric CompanyMuseum of Innovation & Science

GE transferred to Steinmetz to Schenectady, NY in late 1893. Steinmetz shared this home, located at 53 Washington Avenue with Eskil and Ernst Berg from 1893-1897.

Electrical Laboratory, 1890s (1893/1897) by General Electric CompanyMuseum of Innovation & Science

Steinmetz also kept a home laboratory. Here, one of the Berg brothers is working in the lab on Washington Avenue. In the 1890s, the lab included an Edison bi-polar generator and a sign reading "Danger 10,000 Volts".

Letter from Charles Steinmetz to Eskil Berg encouraging Berg to move to the United States by General Electric CompanyMuseum of Innovation & Science

Transcript of the letter reads: "Now the matter is this: come over at once without waiting any more time in Europe. There is nothing to be got there, everything here. You better start with the idea, that you will never go back except for a visit. I never saw a sensible man, who had lived a few years in the United states, willing to go back to Europe to stay. By the way, you will have to work here, and a good deal of it, but there is plenty of time left to have a good time, this come over at once. Best regards in hoping to see you soon personally. Yours, Chas. P. Steinmetz."

Niagara Falls transmission lines (1896/1896) by General Electric CompanyMuseum of Innovation & Science

Part of the Niagara Falls transmission line connecting Niagara Falls and Buffalo, New York. General Electric was given the contract to transmit the electricity generated at the Adams Station to Buffalo.

Niagara Falls, 1895 (1895/1895) by General Electric CompanyMuseum of Innovation & Science

Steinmetz takes a picture of Niagara Falls from the American side. The Maid of the Mist is near the Canadian Falls.

Steinmetz and fellow engineers at Niagara Falls, 1894 (1894/1894) by General Electric CompanyMuseum of Innovation & Science

General Electric engineers Eskil Berg, Ernst Berg, Charles Steinmetz, and two unidentified men pose with bicycles in front of Niagara Falls. Steinmetz and his fellow GE engineers toured the region during breaks from work.

On the Maid of the Mist, Niagara (1895/1895) by General Electric CompanyMuseum of Innovation & Science

During another break, Steinmetz and friends rode the "Maid of the Mist." In operation since 1846, it is one of the country's oldest tourist attractions. Pictured, from left to right, are Eskil Berg, Steinmetz, Ernst Berg, and Langdon Gibson.

Lord and Lady Kelvin visit General Electric Schenectady Works, 1897 (1897/1897) by General Electric CompanyMuseum of Innovation & Science

Sir William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) and his wife visit GE's Schenectady Works in 1897 during a honeymoon tour of the northeast United States. Steinmetz is fourth from left, Elihu Thomson is seventh from left, and Edwin W. Rice, Jr. is eighth from left.

Charles Steinmetz Laying on Rock, 1894 (1894/1894) by General Electric CompanyMuseum of Innovation & Science

Steinmetz enjoyed the variety of nature around New York's Capital Region. Here, he lays on a rock in the middle of Thompson's Lake, in Albany County, New York.

Charles Steinmetz rides his bicycle down Washington Avenue in Schenectady (1894/1897) by General Electric CompanyMuseum of Innovation & Science

Steinmetz rides his bicycle near his first home on Washington Ave in Schenectady's historic Stockade neighborhood.

Steinmetz at Plotterkill by General Electric CompanyMuseum of Innovation & Science

Eskil Berg, Steinmetz and Mr. and Mrs. Gibson taking in the beauty of their surroundings, seated at the Cascade Falls on the Plotterkill Creek. The falls is now part of a Schenectady County nature preserve.

Steinmetz Skiing, 1894 (1894/1894) by General Electric CompanyMuseum of Innovation & Science

Photographs of Steinmetz and friends skiing are the oldest skiing photographs in New York State. Steinmetz's friends Ernst and Eskil Berg are credited with introducing skiing to New York.

Autographed portrait photo of Charles Steinmetz, 1895-1905 (1895/1905) by General Electric CompanyMuseum of Innovation & Science

Steinmetz quickly became known as the top motor and generator designer in the world. He developed the law of hysteresis, a study of the electrical resistance in metals. His mathematical theory of alternating current is still used by engineers today.

Mechanicville, NY Hydroelectric Station, exterior, 1898 (1898/1898) by General Electric CompanyMuseum of Innovation & Science

Exterior of historic hydroelectric station in Mechanicville, New York designed by Steinmetz. The station was originally created to help power GE's Schenectady Works.

Mechanicville, NY, Hydroelectric Station, 1898 (1898/1898) by General Electric CompanyMuseum of Innovation & Science

Interior view of the historic hydroelectric station in Mechanicville, New York, with seven 750 kilowatt alternating current generators. The station is one of the oldest operating power plants in the world.

Steinmetz developing photographs, 1894 (1894/1894) by General Electric CompanyMuseum of Innovation & Science

Steinmetz was an accomplished amateur photographer in the days of glass negatives.
Steinmetz is shown here developing film in his home darkroom.

Steinmetz gets on and off a bicycle (1896/1896) by General Electric CompanyMuseum of Innovation & Science

In the days before photo editing software, Steinmetz created this image using a special triple exposure technique to show a progression of time while riding his bicycle.

Triple exposure photograph featuring Charles Steinmetz, Ernst Berg, and Eskil Berg (1895/1897) by General Electric CompanyMuseum of Innovation & Science

Steinmetz made several of these triple exposure photographs Here, he and his roommates, the Berg brothers each stand in the same line three times. Made with a triple exposure on a glass negative.

Camp Mohawk- Whitney, Dempster & I on veranda (1901-01/1901-01) by General Electric CompanyMuseum of Innovation & Science

Steinmetz poses with one of his laboratory engineers, John T. H. Dempster, and Willis R. Whitney, the first director of the General Electric Research Laboratory at Steinmetz's camp on the Mohawk River. Dempster became the first employee in Whitney's new research laboratory. Steinmetz is pulling the extension cord attached to the shutter release on his camera.

First GE Research Laboratory, 1900 (1900/1900) by General Electric CompanyMuseum of Innovation & Science

Carriage house used by Charles Steinmetz as a laboratory. Steinmetz lived at 233 Liberty Street from 1897-1901. The carriage house was used as the first home of the General Electric Research Laboratory from December 1900 until it burned in February 1901. The dog was erased from later versions of this image.

First home of General Electric Research Laboratory, 1900-1901 (1897/1900) by General Electric CompanyMuseum of Innovation & Science

This edited version of the previous photograph was used by GE's Publicity Department. Steinmetz's dog is airbrushed out of the image.

Charles Steinmetz's carriage barn after fire, 1901 (1901-02/1901-02) by General Electric CompanyMuseum of Innovation & Science

Only three months after the founding of the GE Research Laboratory, a fire destroyed its original home. The laboratory then moved to a building within the GE Schenectady Works.

Charles Steinmetz, standing with hand on pad of paper. (1903/1903) by General Electric CompanyMuseum of Innovation & Science

Charles Steinmetz Circuit Diagram and Notes for a Direct Current Mercury Arc Rectifier (1903/1910)Museum of Innovation & Science

Circuit diagram and notes written by Steinmetz for the mercury arc rectifier. The notes were used as an exhibit for patent docket #7413. The rectifier was used for charging storage batteries and electric cars.

Camp Mohawk from Mohawk River by General Electric CompanyMuseum of Innovation & Science

This is a view of Steinmetz's Camp Mohawk from an island in the Mohawk River, with Steinmetz standing on the left in the window opening.

Charles Steinmetz at Camp Mohawk, circa 1920 (1919/1923) by General Electric CompanyMuseum of Innovation & Science

Steinmetz works at his summer camp on the Mohawk River, Camp Mohawk.

Charles Steinmetz works in canoe in Mohawk River (1922/1922) by General Electric CompanyMuseum of Innovation & Science

Steinmetz writes a paper while sitting in his canoe in the Mohawk River outside his summer camp. During this time period Steinmetz was analyzing Einstein's Theory of Relativity.

Steinmetz home, GE Realty Plot by General Electric CompanyMuseum of Innovation & Science

A side view of Steinmetz's Wendell Avenue residence, which he shared with his adopted family, the Haydens. The house was located in the General Electric Realty Plot. The house included a greenhouse and a laboratory built onto the back of the house.

Charles Steinmetz at work in his home laboratory, 1914 (1914/1914) by General Electric CompanyMuseum of Innovation & Science

Steinmetz's Wendell Avenue house included a laboratory building attached to the rear of the house.

Joseph Hayden in canoe by General Electric CompanyMuseum of Innovation & Science

Joseph Hayden, eldest child of Joseph Leroy Hayden and Corrine Hayden, at four years old, is seen here laughing as he sits in a canoe on the Mohawk River. Steinmetz adopted Joseph L. Hayden, making him the grandfather to the three Hayden children.

Midge in high chair (1910/1910) by General Electric CompanyMuseum of Innovation & Science

Steinmetz's granddaughter Marjorie "Midge" Hayden, born in 1909, sits in Steinmetz's plant conservatory.

Steinmetz electric car 1914 (1914) by Steinmetz, CharlesMuseum of Innovation & Science

Steinmetz poses with his 1914 Detroit Electric Car and his adopted family. From left to right are grandchildren Midge, Billy and Joe Hayden, and adopted son Joseph LeRoy Hayden. Steinmetz is inside the car. The car is on permanent display at Union College.

General Electric Schenectady Works, airplane view, 1923 (1923/1923) by General Electric CompanyMuseum of Innovation & Science

Aerial view of GE's Schenectady Works in 1923, the year of Steinmetz's death. General Electric employed approximately 20,000 people at the time in Schenectady. The remains of the Erie Canal runs to the right of the buildings.

Charles Steinmetz, 1905 (1905/1905) by General Electric CompanyMuseum of Innovation & Science

Autographed portrait photo of Charles Steinmetz.

Charles Steinmetz in his office (1910/1915) by General Electric CompanyMuseum of Innovation & Science

Steinmetz leans on his desk in his office in Building 2 of General Electric's Schenectady Works.

Steinmetz speaks on WGY, 1922 (1922/1922) by General Electric CompanyMuseum of Innovation & Science

Steinmetz is leaning on a chair and speaking into a microphone at radio station WGY. A story recounted by Kolin Hager, the first announcer of WGY, in 1922, discusses the WGY connection to the "No Smoking, No Steinmetz" story. Because of the complex technical equipment at WGY, the management of the station had banned smoking. When Steinmetz arrived for the first of his on-air appearances, he said "No Smoking, no Steinmetz." An exception was made for the famous engineer.

Past presidents, American Institute of Electrical Engineers, 39th annual convention, June 25 to June 29, 1923. by General Electric CompanyMuseum of Innovation & Science

The eighteen past presidents pictured include Charles Steinmetz and Elihu Thomson (seated at center) and Edwin W. Rice, Jr., standing, second from left.

Charles Steinmetz and Guglielmo Marconi by General Electric CompanyMuseum of Innovation & Science

Steinmetz visits with Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi at the General Electric plant in Schenectady, New York. Marconi shared the 1909 Nobel Prize in Physics for his contributions to wireless telegraphy, which is otherwise known as radio. Steinmetz and Marconi are on the steps of GE Building 2 in this image.

Einstein and Steinmetz with group by General Electric CompanyMuseum of Innovation & Science

Original photograph showing Albert Einstein and Charles Steinmetz standing together. The photograph was originally taken on 23 April 1921 during a demonstration of RCA's experimental transoceanic communication station at New Brunswick, NJ to a group of distinguished scientists. The photograph includes a group of 19 scientists. In 1924, after Steinmetz's death, a new version of the image was created in which all the scientists were all removed except for Einstein and Steinmetz. From left to right in the photograph are: First three unidentified, David Sarnoff, Thomas J. Hayden, Dr. Ernst.J. Berg, S. Benedict, Albert Einstein, John Carson, Dr. Charles Steinmetz, Dr. A. N. Goldsmith, A. Malsin, Dr. Irving Langmuir, Dr. Albert W. Hull, E. B. Pillsbury, Dr. Saul Dushman, R.H. Ranger, Dr. G. H. Campbell, Ernst F.W. Alexanderson, and C. H. Taylor.

Albert Einstein and Charles Steinmetz, 1921 by General Electric CompanyMuseum of Innovation & Science

Edited photo showing Albert Einstein and Charles Steinmetz standing together. The photograph originally included a group of 19 scientists. The scientists were all removed except for Einstein and Steinmetz for this image. The fencing behind Einstein was recreated by a photographer. Steinmetz died in 1923, so this photograph was created after his death.

Charles Steinmetz Working at Desk, 1923 (1923/1923) by General Electric CompanyMuseum of Innovation & Science

Steinmetz writing at his desk in Building 2 of the General Electric Schenectady Works. He is without a cigar in this image.

After Lightning Strikes at Camp Mohawk by General Electric CompanyMuseum of Innovation & Science

In August, 1919, lightning struck Camp Mohawk, causing damage to the front porch, as well as one of the bedrooms, as seen here. Steinmetz was captivated by the damage done and spent days piecing together the shattered mirror shown in the picture.

Demonstration of artificial lightning with lightning generator in laboratory of Dr. Charles P. Steinmetz by General Electric CompanyMuseum of Innovation & Science

Steinmetz leads a demonstration of the first million-volt lightning generator. Steinmetz, who developed the theory of transient phenomena, used the lightning generator to study power surges in electrical systems in a controlled setting. He is pictured with two of his assistants, Joseph LeRoy Hayden and N. A. Lougee.

Edison and Steinmetz - Their Last Meeting (1931/1931) by General Electric CompanyMuseum of Innovation & Science

Painting by Harold Mott-Smith of Edison and Steinmetz's 1922 meeting, where Edison viewed Steinmetz's lightning generator. The painting is based on the famous photograph in which Edison and Steinmetz view items struck by Steinmetz's lightning machine. Mott-Smith created the painting in 1931 after Edison's death, and it was used in the GE 1932 calendar.

Charles Steinmetz sitting with actor Douglas Fairbanks (1923/1923) by General Electric CompanyMuseum of Innovation & Science

Taken during Steinmetz's trip to Los Angeles in late summer, 1923. He traveled to LA to speak to the AIEE. Worn out from his trip, Steinmetz died in October 1923. Steinmetz is pictured with Douglas Fairbanks.

Charles Steinmetz in suitcoat leaning on chair (1913/1913) by General Electric CompanyMuseum of Innovation & Science

Credits: Story

This exhibit was developed in 2017 by miSci, the Museum of Innovation & Science. All photos were scanned from the Charles Steinmetz Photograph Collection and General Electric Photograph Collection.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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