He stood just four feet tall, his body contorted by a hump in his back and a crooked gait, and his stunted torso gave the illusion that his head, hands and feet were too big. But he was a giant among scientific thinkers, counting Albert Einstein, Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison as friends, and his contributions to mathematics and electrical engineering made him one of the most beloved and instantly recognizable men of his time.
Steinmetz and his contemporaries (Tesla, Einstein and others) at the Marconi wireless station in New Jersey. Image courtesy of Wikicommons
In the early 20th century, Charles Steinmetz could be seen pedalling his bicycle down the streets of Schenectady, New York, in a suit and top hat, or floating down the Mohawk River in a canoe, kneeling over a makeshift desktop, where he passed hours scribbling notes and equations on papers that sometimes blew into the water.
With a Blackstone panatela cigar seemingly glued to his lips, Steinmetz cringed as children scurried away upon seeing him—frightened, he believed, by the “queer, gnome-like figure” with the German accent.
Such occurrences were all the more painful for Steinmetz, as it was a family and children that he longed for most in his life. But knowing that his deformity was congenital (both his father and grandfather were afflicted with kyphosis, an abnormal curvature of the upper spine), Steinmetz chose not to marry, fearful of passing on his deformity.
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.
Soon after his arrival, he went to work for Eickemeyer and Osterheld, a company in Yonkers, New York, and he identified and explained, through a mathematical equation that later became known as the Law of Hysterisis, or Steinmetz’s Law, phenomena governing power losses, leading to breakthroughs in both alternating- and direct-current electrical systems.
America was entering a golden age of electrical engineering, and when Thomas Edison and General Electric learned what Steinmetz was doing with electric motors in Yonkers, the company bought out Eickemeyer and Osterheld in 1892, acquiring all of Steinmetz’s patents as well as his services.