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Charles Steinmetz – the first consultant February 25, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering.
Tags: , , , , ,

I’ve heard so many variations on this story without giving credit to the correct person that I decided to drag out my favorite math book and retell the story.  This is from the book Differential Equations with Applications and Historical Notes, 2nd ed by George Simmons, McGraw Hill, 1991, pg. 114 – footnote.

The use of complex numbers in the mathematics of electrical circuit problems was pioneered by the mathematician, inventor and electrical engineer Charles Proteus Steinmetz (1865-1923).  As a young man in Germany, his student socialist activities got him into trouble with Bismarck’s police, and he hastily emigrated to America in 1889.  He was employed by the General Electric Company and probably the greatest of all electrical engineers.  When he came to GE there was no way to mass-produce electric motors or generators, and no economically viable way to transmit electric power more than 3 miles.  Steinmetz solved these problems by using mathematics and the power of his own mind, and thereby improved human life forever in ways too numerous to count.

He was a dwarf who was crippled by a congenital deformity and lived with pain, but he was universally admired for his scientific genius and loved for his warm humanity and puckish sense of humor.  The following little-known but unforgettable anecdote about him was published in the Letters section of Life magazine (May 14, 1965):

Sirs: In your article on Steinmetz (April 23) you mentioned a consultation with Henry Ford.  My father, Burt Scott, who was an employee of Henry Ford for many years, related to me the story behind that meeting. Technical troubles developed developed with a huge new generator at Ford’s River Rouge plant. His electrical engineers were unable to locate the difficulty so Ford solicited the aid of Steinmetz.  When “the little giant” arrived at the plant, he rejected all assistance, asking only for a notebook, pencil and cot.  For two straight days and nights, he listened to the generator and made countless computations.  Then he asked for a ladder, a measuring tape and a piece of chalk.  He laboriously ascended the ladder, made careful measurements, and put a chalk mark on the side of the generator. He descended and told his skeptical audience to remove a plate from the side of the generator and take out 16 windings from the field coil at that location.  The corrections were made and the generator functioned perfectly.  Subsequently Ford received a bill for $10,000 signed by Steinmetz for G.E. Ford returned the bill acknowledging the good job done by Steinmetz but respectfully requesting an itemized statement. Steinmetz replied as follows: Making chalk mark on generator $1. Knowing where to make mark $9,999. Total due $10,000.



1. Stef - June 28, 2012

And for further confirmation of your citation’s accuracy, Google Books has that particular issue of Life scanned (page 27 – see the heading ‘Charles Steinmetz’):


mareserinitatis - June 30, 2012

Cool! Thanks for pointing that out! I had gone looking once upon a time for the actual article, but believe I quit because it involved digging through microfiche archives at the library. (Procrastination shouldn’t involve that much work.) 🙂


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