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A Swiss Legacy: Mathematician Ferdinand Hassler and the U.S. Coast Survey

This year, mathematicians have been celebrating the 300th anniversary of the birth of Leonhard Euler. At the same time, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has been commemorating the 200th anniversary of its oldest ancestor agency, the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey. The first head of the Coast Survey was a mathematician named Ferdinand Rudolph Hassler (1770–1843). Like Euler, Hassler was born in Switzerland but did his major work elsewhere.

To a packed house at the MAA's Carriage House Conference Center on Nov. 1, Albert E. (Skip) Theberge, NOAA Corps (ret.), told the little-known but riveting story of Ferdinand Hassler and his scientific contributions to the United States.

Hassler was born on Oct. 7, 1770, in the town of Aarau, Switzerland. Preparing for a career in public service, he studied law, anthropology, and political science before making mathematics and geodesy his primary pursuits. After working on surveys of Switzerland, he and his family left for the United States in 1805 to escape the political turmoil in his native land.

On Dec. 6, 1805, Hassler attended a meeting of the American Philosophical Society, and by the spring of 1807 he was elected a full member. Thomas Jefferson, then serving his second term as President of the United States, was also president of the society.

Historians believe that, influenced by the society, Congress passed a measure to conduct a survey of the U.S. coast, in February, 1807. Jefferson's Secretary of the Treasury, Swiss-born Albert Gallatin, then issued a call for plans to implement a coast survey based on scientific principles. Hassler responded to the notice promptly, and his plan was accepted. He and Isaac Briggs were selected to execute the survey.

Hassler, a mathematician who wrote textbooks on trigonometry and logarithmic tables, had come to a nation with minimal scientific infrastructure. Yet, as head of the Coast Survey, he managed to build a geodetic triangulation network as a framework for both topographic surveys of the U.S. shoreline and hydrographic surveys of harbors and offshore waters, from New York to Delaware.

Hassler also had to defend himself and his views to Congress, comptrollers, and even presidents. He demanded just pay for his work, which gained respect not only for himself but also for scientists who followed in his footsteps. Hassler's motto — "it is the duty of every man to be honest and do good" — set the tone for the course of U.S. science in its earliest decades.

Hassler's scientific contributions went beyond surveying. He put together a thriving group of mathematicians, geodesists, topographers, hydrographers, instrument-makers, engravers, and printers who worked in concert to collect and process data for nautical charts. Hassler also helped put the nation's standards of weights and measures on a scientific basis. He bequeathed to the United States the modern science agency and the oldest and most direct predecessor organization to NOAA's Office of Coast Survey.

Hassler was the U.S. pioneer who elevated the status of science in government and society, Theberge said. He fought the earliest budget and administrative battles with bureaucrats and lawmakers who had little understanding of nature of science. He trained a cadre of surveyors, topographers, and artisans.

In the years following Hassler's death in 1843, Alexander Dallas Bache built on Hassler's foundation to make the Coast Survey the foremost U.S. scientific agency of the mid-nineteenth century. Under Bache, other Swiss immigrants made major contributions to science, including tidal studies and early deep sea oceanography by Louis François de Pourtalès; the first studies of the Florida reefs by Louis Agassiz; and the great contributions to ocean science by his son, Alexander Agassiz.—H. Waldman

News Date: 
Tuesday, November 13, 2007