Schott, Charles Anthony

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(b. Mannheim, Germany, 7 August 1826; d. Washington, D.C., 31 July 1901)


Schott studied for six years at the Technische Hochschule in Karlsruhe, graduating as a civil engineer. The revolution of 1848, in which he participated briefly, and poor career prospects led him to emigrate to the United States in that year. On 8 December 1848 he received an appointment in the U.S. Coast Survey and remained in its service until his death. His initial post was in the agency’s computing division; in 1855 he became its chief, relinquishing the title in 1899.

Although Schott had various field assignments, his career was principally in the Washington office. His division was responsible for processing the data gathered by Survey parties. Before the age of electronic computers these calculations were arduous, if not tedious, often requiring great ingenuity in devising shortcuts and methods of approximation. But Schott’s importance in the Coast Survey far transcended his industry and cleverness in computing. On him, perhaps more than any other individual, depended the precision and the theoretical adequacy of the Survey’s work. This involved not only the study of the instruments, observational techniques, and data but also appraisals of proposed innovations, including theoretical changes.

Evaluating Schott’s role is awkward, since the Coast Survey was a team effort and its publications often did not identify particular contributors. Yet his bibliography and the esteem accorded by informed contemporaries are clues to his stature. Before John F. Hayford, Schott was the leading geodesist in the Survey. His work on the great triangulation across the continent was a high point in the older style of determining the figure of the earth, yielding results falling between those of Bessel and Alexander Ross Clarke. Like others in the Coast Survey, Schott was greatly interested in terrestrial magnetism and was responsible for several studies in this area. When the French Academy awarded him the Wilde Prize in 1898 for his contributions, it was recognition for nearly fifty years of collecting and reducing data, construction new apparatus, studying the influence of the aurora, and investigating the relations of sunspots and magnetic storms.

Schott was also well-known for his climatological studies. The principal evidence of his scientific competence remains unpublished and unstudied in the records of the Coast and Geodetic Survey in the United States National Archives, which contain nearly 150 volumes of his reports on scientific topics, as well as similar documents dispersed in many of the agency’s series of records.


Cleveland Abbe’s memoir of Schott in Biographical Memoirs. National Academy of Sciences. 8 (1915), 87–133, contains a very good bibliography of Schott’s writings but is not very enlightening on his life. The greatest source is Record Group 23 of the U.S. National Archives, the Records of the Coast and Geodetic Survey. They are described by N. Reingold, in Preliminary Inventory of the National Archives, no. 105 (Washington, D.C., 1958). Of particular relevance are the Computing Division Reports (entry 45) and Geodetic Reports (entry 83).

Nathan Reingold