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A Bicentennial Recognition of Ferdinand Rudolph Hassler, A Seminal Figure for Both NIST and NOAA

Ferdinand Rudolph Hassler

by Jim Schooley, SAA History Committee

We are witnessing a curious bicentennial event that involves both NIST and NOAA. It hardly seems possible that NBS/NIST, which has existed only since 1901, could be celebrating 2007 as a bicentennial year. Even less likely is the probability that NBS/NIST would share that bicentennial celebration with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which was formed only in 1970. Yet both agencies trace their roots to the year 1807, when the Congress set aside funds for a survey of the coasts of the United States. 

It is most fitting that this bicentennial celebration has been enriched by the publication of a tribute to Ferdinand Rudolph Hassler, a document jointly edited by Harriet Hassler of the NIST Information Services Division and Charles A. Burroughs, retired officer of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, an agency of NOAA. The document was published last March as NIST Special Publication 1068. It contains a wealth of information about Ferdinand Rudolph Hassler. Anyone who delves into SP 1068 cannot fail to find there a man with a complex personality, yet one who nevertheless spared no effort to perform metrological work that can only be described as excellent. His story should inspire each of us to make maximum use of our professional abilities.  

It is no accident that Harriet Hassler bears the surname of Ferdinand. She is his seventh-generation descendant, much devoted to his memory. 

The life of Ferdinand Hassler is a fascinating one. Even a sketchy appreciation of his multiple careers requires more space than I can give it here, so the following notes convey only some of the features that illustrate his contributions to NIST and NOAA. 

Hassler arrived in the port of Philadelphia late in 1805. He was then 35 years old, bringing with him years of experience in the science of geodetics that he had learned in his native Switzerland; an outstanding collection of some 5,000 books in the fields of diplomacy, history, law, mathematics, and natural philosophy; a wife and four children; and some 120 laborers and craftsmen. His intention was to found a colony of Swiss émigrés in America.  

He soon made the acquaintance of a fellow Swiss, Albert Gallatin, the Secretary of the U.S. Treasury, who introduced him to President Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson, then in his second presidential term, was intent upon improving the rudimentary state of U.S. standards of measurement. A particularly sore point with respect to American standards afflicted its shipping industry. There existed little or nothing in the way of accurate coastal maps. In 1806, Jefferson suggested that Congress commission a "Survey of the U.S. coast ", and early in 1807, Congress passed an act that included $50,000 to accomplish the task and assigned responsibility for its execution to the Treasury Department. Secretary Gallatin sent out a request for proposals to the scientific community. Of the 13 sets of plans that he received, the one submitted by Hassler showed the best grasp of the problems involved and the most detailed plan for execution of the survey. Hassler was duly appointed Superintendent of the Coastal Survey, and he quickly set about acquiring in Europe the instruments and standards necessary for the task. His knowledge of instrumentation led him to oversee directly the construction of the instruments, rather than buying such items as were available on the shelf.  

Construction of suitable instruments took a long time--so long that Congress lost patience with Hassler and assigned responsibility for the survey to the U.S. Army and Navy. Hassler, disappointed, resigned his position, not to regain it until 1832. During the intervening years, the survey project produced only unsatisfactory results.  

In 1829, Hassler applied for a position of gager in a new Congressional venture, the establishment of a national weights and measures competence. Again, Hassler's obvious abilities and his insistence on use of the finest standards led to a leadership role. In1832, he was re-appointed superintendent of the weights and measures study, in addition to a parallel commission to lead the coastal survey. 

This time, Hassler was able to produce results--in both areas. He personally undertook the field measurements needed for an accurate coastal survey, and he directed one of his sons in the weights and measures effort. Though the vicissitudes of dealing with the governmental bureaucracy and the physically difficult outdoor tasks involved in the coastal survey occupied much of his time and energy, Hassler provided the leadership needed to establish two major metrological fields for his adopted country.            

The NIST museum contains an excellent display that illustrates Hassler's work in the area of weights and measures. Through the efforts of Albert C. Parr, retired chief of the NIST Optical Technology Division, NIST has a copy of Hassler's "Comparison of Weights and Measures of Length and Capacity" annotated by the author, as well as Hassler's correspondence with a Russian metrologist. 

In addition to the many details of Hassler's life and work to be found in NIST SP 1068, further information about his eventful life is recorded in a history written by Rexmond C. Cochrane (Measures for Progress, NBS Miscellaneous Publication 275).     

The NBS/NIST Culture of Excellence series is produced under the auspices of the Standards Alumni Association. The SAA, with its office in Room A42 of the Administration Building, supports NIST management in a variety of ways, but principally by assistance with historical projects such as oral histories of staff members, biographical files, the Portrait Gallery of outstanding employees, and the museum. Membership in SAA is open to all present and former employees of NIST. For information, call 301-975-2486.

October 2007  

Created October 24, 2010, Updated November 8, 2018