|Charles Proteus Steinmetz: “X” Marks the Spot
by Greg Hill
Consultants have become an integral part of just about every facet of business and industry today. If they’re worth their salt, you’ll pay just about anything to retain their services, put up with their eccentricities, and overlook their shortcomings (should any exist) in lieu of increased productivity, swelling sales, and most importantly, a healthy bottom line.
One such consultant, probably one of the first of his kind, was the diminutive and rather odd Charles Proteus Steinmetz. This German-born electrical engineer, whose personal idiosyncrasies were ironically mirrored in an unfortunate deformity of the spine known as kyphoscoliosis, enjoyed a 31-year association with General Electric as a consulting engineer for Thomas Edison’s former company.
Steinmetz’ contributions to electrical engineering were instrumental in providing yet another step in the process that led from magnetism to electricity. During his prolific career, he derived the law of hysteresis, used in alternating-current calculations. Power losses in transformers were a costly and irksome problem facing electrical engineers bent on harnessing and distributing efficiently this relatively new source of energy. Steinmetz’ developments in hysteresis helped electrical engineers minimize these losses.
But Charles Steinmetz was far more than your average consultant; he was the ideal consultant. Quirky? Yes. Peculiar? Most definitely. Effective? Undeniably.
Consider an oft-told tale relayed by David A. Shore of Harvard University. As the story goes, after retiring from GE, Steinmetz was hired back to help fix a malfunctioning machine. After carefully inspecting the machine, testing various parts, looking thoughtfully here and there, he produced a piece of chalk from his shirt pocket and marked an “X” on a particular part. Later, after dismantling the machine, GE technicians were amazed to discover the flaw was exactly where Steinmetz had made his chalk mark.
Steinmetz’ bill to GE for consulting work: “For making one chalk mark on machinery, $1. For knowing where to put the chalk mark, $9,999.”
They were almost as astounded when, several days later, Steinmetz sent them a bill for $10,000. Seeking some sort of explanation from its long-time electrical guru, the company asked for an itemization of his bill. GE received this breakdown: “For making one chalk mark on machinery, $1. For knowing where to put the chalk mark, $9,999.”
To remember Charles Steinmetz solely for a clever anecdote, for his affection for trick photography, or for his penchant for smoking cigars in a company that had a strict “no smoking” policy, would be a travesty. These eccentricities endear him to us as a character, but do not alone gain him entrance to the ranks of The Masters. Rather, his commitment to excellence, his conscientious search for practical solutions to real social problems, his service to the community, and the ability to know where to put the “X” make Steinmetz a true Master.
Greg Hill is publications associate at IEEE-USA in Washington, DC (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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