Escher von Der Linth, Hans Conrad

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Escher von Der Linth, Hans Conrad

(b. Zurich, Switzerland, 24 August 1767; d. Zurich, 9 March 1823)

geology, hydraulics.

Escher came from an old Zurich family. His father was an administrator of the canton of Zurich and ran a prosperous textile factory. Escher, who had eleven brothers and sisters, took over his father’s business in 1788, after traveling in France, England, Austria, and Italy, and studying for a year in Göttingen, Germany. In the following years he became involved in politics. His judgment, strength of character, and patriotism gained him responsible administrative positions in his native canton; and in 1798, during the French occupation, he was the head of the Great Council of Switzerland.

Escher began his most important work in hydraulics in 1803 on measures to control the devastation caused by the flooding of the Linth River. The Linth was at that time a rapid mountain river that flowed into the Lake of Zurich and caused heavy high-water damage all year long. According to Escher’s plan the Linth River would be conducted into the neighboring Lake of Walen to the east and thereby be rendered harmless. The connection to the Lake of Zurich would be provided by an artificial canal. For this work, largely completed in 1811 and entirely finished in 1823—half a year after his death—Escher and his male descendants obtained the surname “von der Linth.” In the last decade of his life Escher was again active in the politics and administration of the canton of Zurich. His only son, Arnold (1807–1872), was an important Alpine geologist.

Soon after he returned from his travels, Escher began the geological investigations of the Alps which occupied him for many years. As early as 1796 he published a geological survey of the Swiss Alps, which was later followed by a series of geological profiles from Zurich to the St. Gotthard Pass. In 1809, in the course of his wanderings in the upper Linth Valley, Escher made an observation that became of great importance for later conceptions of the geological structure of the Alps. He found an older “graywacke formation” (later known as the Permian Verrucano) that lies above the younger “Alpine Limestone Formation” (later known as the Jurassic Lochseiten limestone). Escher did not pursue the consequences of this inverse stratification—one reason was undoubtedly the sharp criticism of Leopold von Buch, who rejected his interpretation. Escher’s view, that here occurs a tectonic phenomenon connected with the tectonic nappe structure widespread in the Swiss Alps, has long been confirmed, however.

A controversy between Escher and Buch developed on another point. Buch and many other geologists of the time found it difficult to accept water erosion as the fundamental cause of the formation of the great Alpine valleys. They attributed that process instead to ancient tectonic rifts and subsidence. Escher rejected this view, taking for his example the valley of Valais, the widest in the Alps. The direction of this valley does not follow the course and strike of the rocks in the valley walls, but rather intersects them at an angle of thirty to forty degrees. Escher attributed a major influence in the formation of valleys to erosion by rivers (1818).

He further recognized that the distribution of erratic boulders not of local origin in the northern foreland of the Alps corresponds to the watersheds of the great Alpine rivers—the Rhine, the Aare, the Reuss, and the Rhone (1822). Escher thought these boulders were transposed from their watershed in catastrophic floods—today we know that Pleistocene glaciers in the same valleys transported rocks characteristic of the substratum in their moraines into the northern foreland. The occasionally diverse rocks present in the watersheds of the glaciers were thereby distributed separately. Escher’s observation, however, was fundamentally sound.

In his geological works Escher showed himself to be a precise, thorough, and critical observer who shied away from hypotheses and the propounding of theories. His modesty led him to publish only a few of his geological studies and investigations.


I. Original Works. Escher’s works include Geognostische Übersicht der Alpen in Helvetien (Zurich, 1796); Alpina, 2 vols. (Zurich, 1806–1807); “Geognostische Beschreibung des Linthtales,” in Leonard’s Taschenbuch für die gesamte Mineralogie, 3 (1809), 339–354; “Über die geognostischen Verhältnisse der Gebirge der Linthtäler,” ibid., 6 (1812), 369–394; “Die Bildungsart der Täler betreffend,” ibid., 12 (1818), 199–221; and “Beiträge zur Naturgeschichte der freiliegenden Felsblöcke in der Nähe des Alpen-Gebirges,” ibid., 16 (1822), 631–676.

II. Secondary Literature. On Escher and his work see H. Hölder, Geologie and Paläontologie in Texten and ihrer Geschichte (Freiburg im Breisgau, 1960), pp. 65–68, 73; J. J. Hottinger, Hans Konrad Escher von der Linth, Charakterbild eines Republikaners (Zurich, 1852); R. Lauterborn, “Der Rhein. Naturgeschichte eines deutschen Stromes,” in Berichte der Naturforschenden Gesellschaft zu Freiburg im Breisgau, 33 (1934), 105–107; G. Meyer von Knonau, in Allgemeine deutsche Biographie, VI (Munich, 1877), 365–372; and R. Wolf, “H. C. Escher von der Linth,” in Biographien zur Kulturgeschichte der Schweiz, IV (Zurich, 1862), 317–348.

Heinz Tobien