Ferdinand Rudolph Hassler

Portrait of Ferdinand Rudolph Hassler courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

The first superintendent of the United States Coast Survey, Ferdinand Rudolph Hassler was a Swiss-born and educated mathematician who came to the United States in 1805. His contributions to the Lewis and Clark expedition involved corrections and alterations to the maps and calculations of longitude and latitude made by the Captains. He was born in Aarau, Switzerland, 6 October 1770, and was educated in nearby Bern. He attended the University of Bern intending to study jurisprudence, but met Johann George Tralles, a German mathematician, who inspired Hassler to study science and mathematics.

In 1793, Hassler traveled to Paris to study astronomy under some of the foremost scientists in Europe at the time. He returned to Switzerland five years later, when the French invaded his country. He held several public offices during the French occupation, including the attorney general for Switzerland. However, in 1803, the French took control of geographically related surveys, and Hassler decided that he could not work under them. He and his family emigrated to the United States in 1805, settling in New York.

In 1807, President Thomas Jefferson appointed Hassler professorial position at the United States Military Academy at West Point on a recommendation from the Secretary of the Treasury, Albert Gallatin. Hassler taught mathematics, but apparently did not develop a good rapport with his students. He only taught the brightest students, and did not spend time with those who had less aptitude for math. In 1809, the Secretary of War William Eustis told Hassler that the government did not approve of civilians teaching at the Military Academy. Hassler resigned his position on 14 February 1810. He took another position as a Professor of Natural Philosophy and Mathematics at Union College in Schenectady, NY, in March, 1810. He again found that teaching did not well suit his tastes, nor did his style of teaching effectively inspire his students to study.

In 1812, congress appointed Hassler the superintendent of the first United States Coast survey. They sent him to France and England to collect supplies for his endeavor. The English, however, detained Hassler, thinking him an enemy spy. He returned to the United States in 1815, at which time the survey formally began. Two years later, dissatisfied with his work, Congress suspended the survey. Hassler tried his hand at farming in upstate New York, and then traveled to Richmond to privately tutor the children of wealthy families. He also started writing textbooks which included Analytical Trigonometry, Elements of Geometry, Systems of the Universe, and Elements of Arithmetic. He also compose an article for the publication of the American Philosophical Society, Transactions, in 1828. In that piece, he defended his methods for the Coastal survey. Many respected scientists read the article and approved of his methods, and wrote to express their support for his leadership of the project.

In 1830, President Andrew Jackson appointed Hassler as the gauger for the United States, determining the standards for weights and measures for the country. Two years later, Hassler resumed his work as the superintendent of the Coast survey. He served in both of those capacities until his death on 20 November 1843.

Information from:

"Ferdinand Rudolph Hassler." http://www.dean.usma.edu/math/about/history/hassler.htm. 19 October 2003.

White, James T., ed. "Ferdinand Rudolph Hassler." Appleton's Cyclopaedia of American Biography. New York: Appleton and Co, 1887-89. http://www.famousamericans.net/ferdinandrudolphhassler. 2001.