Reading Steinmetz, part 1

August 31, 2012 5:06:16 PM CDT

For the sake of generating content, I've decided to start posting quasi-book-reports about the things I've been reading lately. If nothing else, it will dispel the impression among my friends that I read nothing but webcomics.

(though seriously, if you've never heard of Girl Genius, go give it a look. Pack a lunch)

The main reason I don't to book recommendations is that I tend to prefer works for -- shall we say -- a select audience. This week's page-turner is Steinmetz's Theoretical Elements of Electrical Engineering (third edition, 1909), hereafter abbreveiated TEoEE.

Charles Proteus Steinmetz suffered from dwarfism, hunchback, and hip displasia. He was also a brilliant methematician and scientist who laid the foundations of electrical engineering more or less by himself. I got his name from Hans Camenzind's Designing Analog Chips (DAC below), another great book that I'll write about sooner or later.

I hold the opinion that the best way to learn any subject is to study its history. The hardest part of learning a subject is getting a grip on the basic ideas, and it's amazing how many books are written by people who already understand the basic ideas for people who already understand the basic ideas.

If you go back to the earliest works on a subject, you find the people who are just as confused as you are. They're trying to work out the basic ideas themselves, and since they don't have a century's worth of jargon to fall back on, they're forced to express their thoughts in terms that ordinary mortals can understand.

From what I read in DAC, the third edition of TEoEE is the one where Steinmetz finally got technical accuracy and readability to fit on the same page.

TEoEE - Preface:

Reading a book's preface serves roughly the same function as sending a canary down a mineshaft: it gives you some idea of what's waiting ahead for you.

Steinmetz scores well here. The preface weighs in at 1-1/2 pages, and contains five paragraphs that all have something useful to say.

The first two paragraphs give a rough idea of where the book is heading: how to represent sine waves as vectors, then polar coordinates, then as complex numbers, and how to apply that to saying useful things about electricity. That's a big deal.. prior to Steinmetz, nobody knew how to describe alternating current mathematically.

Graf two says that the last part of the book will be a survey of electrical machinery that was important at the time. Again, that's a big deal because this was the period when America got electrified. Generating and transmitting electricity were cutting-edge projects, and Steinmetz's work made a lot of it possible.

The language is a bit formal by today's standards:

The present work is, however, is broader in its scope, in so far as it comprises the fundamental principles not only of alternating, but also direct currents.

but the ideas don't get lost behind the words.

Graf three gets a bit snarky:

I restrict the work to those apparatus which experience has shown as of practical importance, and give only those theories and methods which an extended experience in the design and operation has shown as of practical utility. I consider this the more desirable as, especially of late years, electrical literature has been haunted by so many theories (for instance of the induction machine) which are incorrect, or too complicated for use, or valuless in practical application. In the class last mentioned are most of the graphical methods, which, while they may give an approximate insight into the inter-relation of phenomena, fail entirely in engineering practice owing to the great difference in the magnitudes of the vectors in the same diagram, and to the synthetic method of graphical representation, which generally require one to start with the quantity which the diagram is indended to determine.

Okay.. maybe you had to be there, but I thought it was funny.

The last couple of grafs are details about notation and and format.

Overall, I get the sense of a guy who's equally comfortable doing abstract math and getting his hands dirty. I like that. Pure empiricists can get proud of their lack of book-larnin', and theoreticians often get into conversations that go:

"Try this."

"It doesn't work."

"Yes, but isn't it a beautiful idea?"

The fact that math can be beautiful in its own right shouldn't detract from the fact that it can also be a damn useful tool.. and a good workman knows his tools.

Random brain cookies:

The universe is like a safe to which there is a combination -- but the combination is locked up in the safe. -- Peter DeVries