Hassler, Ferdinand Rudolph

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Hassler, Ferdinand Rudolph

(b. Aarau, Switzerland, 7 October 1770; d. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 20 November 1843)


Hassler’s career is interesting for two reasons: as an instance of the transfer of scientific skills across the Atlantic and for the study of attitudes toward science in the early United States. He was a trained European scientist who immigrated to America in 1805. Reflecting French influences, Hassler brought with him a set of metric weights and measures and an interest in the determination of the figure of the earth. A coast survey was launched in 1807 but work did not start until 1816 after Hassler had brought back books and instruments from Europe. In the interim he taught at Union College and West Point; during the later suspension of the Coast Survey, 1819–1830, he supported himself by writing textbooks and taking odd jobs. From 1832 to 1843, Hassler headed the revived Coast Survey (now Coast and Geodetic Survey) and acted as superintendent of the Office of Weights and Measures (the predecessor of the National Bureau of Standards).

No one seriously doubts Hassler’s role in introducing and maintaining high professional standards in early American science, nor is there any question of his interest in expanding the Coast Survey to cover various geophysical areas, such as terrestrial magnetism and tides. What is doubtful is the assumption that Hassler was the main—if not the sole—channel by which these professional standards and areas were introduced to the United States. The sophistication of his American-trained successor, A. D. Bache, and his success in expanding the Coast Survey implies that Hassler was not the only conduit and that there was a fair degree of receptivity to such scientific work.

This question is significant because the Cajori biography, which is the standard source for Hassler, and other sources make much of his difficulties in the American environment. They rarely question Hassler’s ways, which were not always tactful. In emphasizing Hassler, there is often a silence on or a downgrading of others who were active in science at the same time. For example, current research takes a much more favorable view than Cajori’s of Andrew Ellicott, Hassler’s antagonist in one encounter. Perhaps Hassler’s difficulty was one of European style in the American environment.


Hassler MSS are in the Coast and Geodetic Survey and National Bureau of Standards records in the U.S. National Archives. The New York Public Library has the largest collection of Hassler letters. Additional important documents are in the library of the American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Still the best sources for the writings of Hassler and related contemporary works are the bibliographies in G. A. Weber, The Coast and Geodetic Survey (Baltimore, 1923) and The Bureau of Standards (Baltimore, 1925); and the extensive documentation in Florian Cajori, The Chequered Career of Ferdinand Rudolph Hassler... (Boston, 1929).

The Cajori biography is very useful because of the extensive research on which it is based. Indeed, some of the MSS cited apparently are no longer extant. Its greatest weakness is its lack of any comparable research on Hassler’s contemporaries and the often uncritical treatment accorded its subject’s activities.

Nathan Reingold