NOAA Central Library
 Contact Us | Catalog | Ask-A-Librarian | Feedback | A-Z Index
All of NOAA
and the


Ferdinand Hassler was born on the eve of the American Revolution on October 7, 1770, in the town of Aarau, Switzerland. Aarau is in the northern German-speaking region of Switzerland and Hassler grew up speaking German as his native tongue. His father was a wealthy manufacturer of watches and quite active in civic affairs. At varying times he was a member of the town council, head of the Board of Taxes, Superintendent of Public Works, and Superintendent of the Cathedral.

By his father's influence, the younger Hassler was appointed to an administrative bureau in Bern in 1786 that was concerned with collection of revenue from properties and public surveying requirements for the Canton. The summers he spent surveying and the winters working in the office and conducting studies at the Political Institute which was to become the University of Bern. He began his formal studies with law, anthropology, and political science in preparation for a career in public service. While at the Institute, he met Johann Georg Tralles, a gifted German scientist, who became his mentor and set Hassler on the course that he was to pursue for the remainder of his life. Under Tralles, mathematics and geodesy became Hassler's primary pursuits. Tralles was an exacting taskmaster, but Hassler was not intimidated and mastered all that Tralles presented, thereby laying a solid foundation for the future.

In 1791 Hassler and Tralles measured a baseline near Bern that was over 40,000 feet long. The same year, at the expense of Hassler's father (who actively encouraged his studies), a small triangulation network was surveyed. This was but a beginning; soon Tralles presented his plans for the geodetic survey of the entire Canton of Bern to the influential Economic Society of Bern. A commission was appointed by the Society to look into the advisability of having a complete geodetic survey of the Canton undertaken.

The commission found that no adequate map existed of "Switzerland in general and the Canton of Bern in particular, notwithstanding the numerous drawings which bear the name of land maps.... Professor Tralles has shown the last few years by measurements and observations of a degree of precision not reached by others that not even the latitude of the capital city of Bern or of any other place in the Canton had up to this time been determined accurately."(1) The report also pointed out the economic value of knowing accurate elevations, the location of natural and man-made features, and the general topography of an area for use in engineering projects and the determination of property lines. The scientific value of such a survey would add to knowledge "of the figure of the earth" including knowledge "of the attraction of mountains" which would "secure the thanks of the world of learning and be a lasting honor."(2) Echoes of this obscure report reverberated years later in the founding of the United States Survey of the Coast.

Over the next five years, Hassler worked with Tralles in the survey of Bern, executed a separate survey of the boundary between the Cantons of Bern and Solothurn, and took many independent excursions for further education and personal collecting of scientific instruments and books. This work introduced him to most of the eminent scientists of Europe and he became quite proficient in the mathematics, geodesy, astronomy, metrology, chemistry, physics, and mechanical engineering of the day. His personal work in metrology included collecting copies of many of the European standards of weights and lengths.

For the triangulation work, an advanced theodolite that was to be at least three feet in diameter was ordered from Ramsden, the great London instrument maker. Sir Joseph Banks, the illustrious naturalist of the first Cook expedition, promised to oversee the construction of this instrument himself. The theodolite was to be delivered in 1794, but, because of war

conditions between England and France did not arrive in Bern until 1797.

With arrival of the new instrument, the Economic Society decided to commission Tralles and Hassler to conduct a primary triangulation of the Canton of Bern involving 25 stations and remeasurement of the 1791 baseline at Aarberg. The time allotted to complete this work was four years and as this work was to be undertaken as part of other duties of the two men, $300 per year was agreed upon as the additional stipend to complete the work. It is noted that the Canton of Bern covered approximately 2,500 square miles and the planned time of four years was quite generous in light of future events in Hassler's administration of the Survey of the Coast.

Regardless of plans, in 1798 citizen soldiers of the French Revolution marched into Switzerland and established the Helvetic Republic. This event precipitated the dissolution of the governing bodies of the cantons, establishment of new cantons subordinate to a strong central government controlled by the French, and realignment of canton boundaries. Although Hassler took no active role in the takeover of the French or in accompanying Swiss revolutionary movements, he found himself drawn inexorably into events. He was "... so situated, that being called in consultation, when no government actually existed, it happened that I penned the declaration of separation of the new canton formed around my native place from that of Bern, with which it had been united,...."(3) Over the next few years, he was active in the democratic process and was elected Deputy Governor of the new canton of Aargau, attorney general of his canton, and one of the two attorney generals of Switzerland. He also found time to sporadically devote time to what he was then calling the "triangulation of Switzerland." Following the reorganization of the Swiss Government in 1803 and the dissolution of the strong central government, Hassler returned to his home town where he was elected a member of the city council and became superintendent of public buildings and keeper of the public archives. He also remained active in judicial affairs as he served with the Canton Court of Appeals.

1798 was a momentous year for Hassler for personal as well as political reasons. On February 1, 1798, he married Marianne Gaillard, the daughter of a teacher in Bern. According to contemporary accounts, she was cheerful, enjoyed an active social life, and was an accomplished singer and piano player. But, it was also noted that she had little interest in domestic matters. In short, she was probably an excellent wife for a prosperous Swiss merchant or government official, but was ill-suited for future turns in Hassler's life. Regardless of what the future held, she and Hassler got along well enough as evidenced by the birth of nine children between 1799 and 1816.

In 1803, it became apparent that the French intended to take over the survey of Switzerland. This caused Tralles, Hassler's friend and mentor, to leave Switzerland for the Royal Academy at Berlin. If Tralles had stayed on in Switzerland, Hassler probably would have stayed. Instead, in 1804, Hassler made up his mind to seek a new life in America and engaged in an enterprise to form a company to purchase a large tract of land in the southeast part of the United States. He made a substantial investment in this company, following which an agent proceeded to America to purchase the land. Hassler stayed behind and recruited over 100 laborers, artisans, and skilled individuals to found a colony. He chartered the ship LIBERTY and "left home on the fifteenth of May, 1805, with wife, children and servants, and ninety-six trunks, boxes, and bales..."(4) for Amsterdam where the ship was waiting. Hassler and his entourage embarked upon their trip to America in early summer, 1805.


The LIBERTY sailed for Philadelphia and arrived in October 1805. By some accounts (5)(6), Hassler had reason to learn on this trip of the necessity for good charts of the coast of the United States as the captain of the LIBERTY had a stroke following a terrific storm. Hassler chose to navigate the vessel to the New World instead of turning back for Europe. After a passage of two and a half months, he piloted the ship up Delaware Bay to Philadelphia. If a true story, this was an auspicious beginning to Hassler's association with the seacoast of the United States. Upon arrival in Philadelphia, he discovered that the company agent had lost the company funds in speculation. Hassler found himself impecunious in a strange land, responsible not only for his own family but for those who had accompanied him. For the first time in America, but not the last, he began selling personal possessions to support his family and, in this case, to provide a dismissal stipend to the men and women that had accompanied him.

Fortunately for America, Hassler did not bemoan his fate. He acquired American citizenship as rapidly as possible and began making contacts in the scientific community. Perhaps it was fate, but Philadelphia was then the center of American science. On December 6, 1805, Hassler attended a meeting of the American Philosophical Society and by spring of 1807 was elected a full-fledged member. Thomas Jefferson, then serving his second term as President of the United States, was also President of the Philosophical Society; this connection provided Hassler with access to high political office which he would use to good advantage throughout his career. Through his association with the Philosophical Society, he formed a life-long friendship with John Vaughn, a scientifically-minded philanthropist who aided Hassler both financially and politically throughout much of the remainder of his life. Vaughn was a successful wine merchant who was as renowned for his social gatherings in early Nineteenth Century Philadelphia as he was for being a patron of the arts and sciences.

In 1806, Hassler began selling portions of his personal scientific library and various standardized weights and measures that he had brought with him from Europe. His scientific library was fabulous for the times and was comprised of over 3,000 volumes "of books of all the most select ancient and modern classical [authors] in natural and mathematical sciences...."(7) The Philosophical Society bought some of Hassler's books while John Vaughn bought the standard meter, kilogram, and three toises (units of measure) that Hassler had brought with him from Europe. Vaughn told the Philosophical Society that he would sell them to the Society at any future date for the price which he had paid Hassler. Many years later, he loaned these standards to Hassler, recently appointed Superintendent of Weights and Measures, for comparisons. Effectively, Vaughn had given Hassler a grant and then kept the standards in trust for the young nation.


During 1806, letters were written by Dr. Robert Patterson, Director of the Philadelphia Mint, and John Vaughan to President Jefferson concerning Ferdinand Hassler and the impression that he had made upon them and the members of the American Philosophical Society. In Patterson's letter of March 3, 1806,(8) he included a short autobiographical sketch prepared by Hassler stating his experience and qualifications. In Vaughan's letter of December 20, 1806,(9) he mentioned that he had purchased Hassler's standards of length and weight and described as well an attempt to engage him for surveying "York Island, for the Corporation of New York" and continuing that survey up the Hudson River Valley to Albany. The goal of continuing the survey to Albany was to measure a degree of latitude and give the United States the opportunity to help in establishing the meter as a universal standard of lineal measurement defined as one-ten-millionth of the distance from the North Pole to the Equator. Thus, the first suggestion of a geodetic survey within the United States had its roots in national pride and the desire to assist in establishing an international standard of length. Because Hassler fell ill and the government of the "Corporation of New York" changed in the meantime, this survey was never conducted.

Given the nature of the above correspondence and plans, it seems probable that the honor of first suggesting a Survey of the Coast based on scientific principles should reside with Robert Patterson and John Vaughan. It would also seem that, if Ferdinand Rudolph Hassler had not come to the United States, the beginnings of such an endeavor would not have been considered for many years in the future. Within sixteen months of Hassler's arrival in America, the following act (10) was passed by Congress on February 10, 1807:

"Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the President of the United States shall be, and he is hereby authorized and requested, to cause a survey to be taken of the coasts of the United States, in which shall be designated the islands and shoals, with the roads or places of anchorage, within twenty leagues of any part of the shores of the United States; and also the respective courses and distances between the principal capes, or head lands, together with such other matters as he may deem proper for completing an accurate chart of every part of the coasts within the extent aforesaid."

Section 2 of this act authorized the survey of "St. Georges Bank, and any other bank or shoal and the soundings and currents beyond the distance aforesaid to the Gulf Stream" if in the opinion of the President such surveys would serve the interests of commerce. Section 3 authorized employing "proper and intelligent persons" and also authorized the use of public vessels for conducting the survey work. Section 4 appropriated "a sum not exceeding fifty thousand dollars" to conduct the survey.

On February 19, 1807, Dr. Caspar Wistar, a member of the Philosophical Society, wrote to Jefferson concerning Hassler "with a view to his employment in surveying the Coast &c--...."(11) Jefferson's reply to Wistar was not particularly encouraging to Hassler: "The foreigners who come to reside in this country, bring with them an almost universal expectation of office... the trusts of every country are safest in it's native citizens." However, he goes on to say, "It is true there are some employments which scarcely involve at all the question of the love of country, and into which meritorious foreigners & of peculiar qualifications may sometimes be introduced, such is the present case ...."

Perhaps it was the letter of Dr. Wistar that precipitated President Jefferson directing the Swiss-born Albert Gallatin, the Secretary of the Treasury, to issue a notice to all interested scientific men in the United States asking for plans for bringing a survey of the coast into effect. Gallatin's letter, dated March 25, 1807,(12) specifically requests to know how a surveyor would: 1) ascertain by astronomic position the true position of "a few remarkable points on the Coast; 2) conduct a trigonometrical survey of the Coast between the points which have been determined astronomically; and, 3) conduct "A Nautical Survey of the Shoals and Soundings off the Coast" of which the trigonometrical survey would be the basis for determining the position of soundings and hazards to navigation. Gallatin also inquires whether it is possible to make a correct survey with one vessel alone and whether it is possible to determine one's location relative to three visible objects on shore.(13)

Hassler responded to Gallatin's letter on April 2, 1807.(14) The quick response would indicate that he was aware such a notice might be forthcoming and that he had been considering the problem of conducting a survey of the coast for some time. Hassler's letter was written in French, as he trusted his ability to communicate complicated ideas in that language much more than he trusted his English at that time. The twelve responses to Gallatin's notice were evaluated by a committee of the American Philosophical Society headed by Robert Patterson. Patterson had submitted a plan himself for a survey of the coast. On July 23, 1807, Hassler was notified that his plan was selected as the best of those submitted. He and Isaac Briggs, who later became a famous engineer associated with the building of the Erie Canal, were selected for the execution of the survey.

However, no action was taken to begin the survey until 1811 because of the unsettled international political climate. Although Jefferson was among the most scientific of United States Presidents, it was odd that he was instrumental in passing a law for the Survey of the Coast in early 1807; just three months before he had instituted an economic embargo against both England and France because of their depredations against American ships and seamen. This embargo resulted in the recall of over 20,000 American seamen on the high seas and effectively terminated the American merchant marine and international trade. The embargo continued until the end of his administration. Just one month before Hassler was notified that his plan was selected as the best for the Survey, the British frigate LEOPARD perpetrated an unprovoked attack against the United States frigate CHESAPEAKE resulting in the death of three American sailors and the forcible removal of four alleged British deserters from the CHESAPEAKE. This threw the young American nation into a frenzy of nationalism. Although Thomas Jefferson averted war by judiciously using continuing economic sanctions, he caused economic hardship in the United States as well as Great Britain. As a result the sanctions were lifted in 1809, just prior to his leaving office.

Jefferson's successor, James Madison, reinstituted the Survey and sent Hassler to Great Britain in late 1811 to procure survey instruments. Because of continuing difficulties between the two nations, Madison declared war on Great Britain eight months after Hassler's arrival in London.


To make ends meet, Hassler accepted a teaching position at West Point on February 14, 1807. He became a professor of mathematics at the United States Military Academy. Because of the primitive state of education in mathematics at that time, he began writing the textbook "Elements of Analytic Trigonometry." A footnote in the introduction stated, "It was the desire of introducing into the course of mathematics at West Point, the most useful mode of instructions in this branch, that led me to the preparation of this work,...."(15) Hassler had John J. Abert, who commanded the Topographical Engineers from 1838 until 1861, and Joseph G. Swift, who became Chief of the Corps of Engineers and a Superintendent of West Point, as students. Swift was also the first cadet to graduate from West Point. These men remained lifelong friends. In a letter to a son of Hassler, Swift wrote that Hassler, "as Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy at West Point made me acquainted with the triangulation of Switzerland, and with the hopes of commencing that of the whole United States... The intimacy between your father and myself... remained unbroken through Mr. Hassler's undeserved vicissitudes to his death."(16)

Mr. Hassler's "undeserved vicissitudes" at the hands of the United States Government began in early 1810 when he was forced to resign from West Point because of a policy decision rendered by William Eustis, recently appointed Secretary of War, that the employment of civilians at West Point was not authorized. Swift wrote to Hassler: "Your treatment is cruel in the extreme.... I consider it a reproach to my country that a man with your worth and talents is left by it with the troubles of making money from their neglect...."(17) Colonel Jonathan Williams, a nephew of Benjamin Franklin and then Superintendent of the Military Academy, wrote Hassler on January 1, 1810, " ...I beg you to accept, my dear Sir, of my esteem and regard and let me also add my perfect satisfaction with all your conduct while employed in the Academy. I shall always be ready to testify my opinion of your talents, which are of the highest grade, but also of the honor, integrity, and general excellence of your character."(18)

Fortunately for Hassler, within a short time of his being discharged from the United States Military Academy, the position of Professor of Natural Philosophy and Mathematics opened at Union College in Schenectady, New York. He was accepted for this position on March 20, 1810. On April 14, 1810, President Eliphalet Nott of Union College wrote to his brother and spoke of Hassler's appointment as follows: "... The mathematical professorship is filled by a learned Swiss --- F. R. Hassler --- confessedly the ablest mathematician and astronomer that was ever in America ... and who goes through a course of lectures and experiments in the manner of the most approved European professors." Although Hassler seems to have gotten along quite well with the students at West Point, he had trouble relating to the children of the American middle- and upper-classes. One student wrote that: "He was an eccentric and highly sensitive man. He had a work shop in the upper part of his house, where with his own hands he fabricated many things pertaining to his scientific pursuits. Owing partly to his want of familiarity with our language, and, paradoxical though it may seem, to his vast learning, he was not a successful teacher." Another student wrote of him: "...with all his mathematical talents, which are very considerable, he had not tact for managing boys, hence in his recitation room his students reigned ascendant.... He became so absorbed in demonstrations, his students would walk out on him, and he would never be conscious of their absence.... It is also told of this extraordinary man that he made his own bread at home... and came to his recitation room with flour on his coat. They also tell of his making his son's clothes and that he cut them by laying him flat upon the cloth and marking out his figure... His absentmindedness is well established, if this be true which is told of him, that he once took a letter from the office and was so intent upon reading it that he made a mistep (sic) and fell flat in the street. He was nothing disturbed by this but read on to the end, then got up."(19)

Perhaps the letter that so enthralled Hassler was the one from Albert Gallatin inquiring whether he would be willing to proceed to London to procure and supervise the construction of instruments for the Survey of the Coast. Although it appears that negotiations for such an endeavor were going on in late 1810, Gallatin formalized his offer to Hassler on April 16, 1811. Hassler agreed to the terms of Gallatin's offer and began working immediately on plans for the instruments. He resigned from Union College on July 23, 1811, and four days later he departed for New York. On July 27th he was again formally employed by the United States Government. The alacrity with which Hassler left his professorship to embark on an uncertain future would tend to validate the claims of the students that he was not an effective teacher at Union College.


Hassler arrived with his family in New York on August 1 expecting to meet Secretary Gallatin. Instead, he proceeded to Philadelphia where meetings with Gallatin and Robert Patterson firmed up final plans for the instruments. After attending to the administrative details associated with the upcoming trip to England, Hassler and his family embarked from New York on August 29 bound for Liverpool arriving September 27. The administrative details included agreements for his payment at the rate of 940 pounds sterling (approximately $4,700 per year) for salary and establishment of a credit of 3,000 pounds sterling (approximately $15,000) for the procurement of instruments. He arrived in London October 10 and commenced visiting instrument makers. He allocated the work of producing clocks, chronometers, and the main surveying instruments between various "artists" by early November. The first cloud of this stay in Europe appeared with the awareness that Edward Troughton, who was selected to produce the main instruments, was "yet occupied with the mural circle of Greenwich" and that this could cause a longer stay than had been planned. Four long years later, Hassler returned to the United States.

It was Hassler's misfortune to have proceeded to London just eight months prior to the outbreak of the War of 1812. By today's standards, he was treated remarkably well for an enemy alien by the British Government. There is a story that his passport was refused at the alien office in London requiring application to the foreign Secretary "who is said to have granted it with the remark 'that the British government makes no wars on science.'"(20) If so, it echoes Benjamin Franklin's direction to American privateers giving Captain James Cook's vessels free passage in the interest of science. In spite of this, it is probable that Hassler experienced subtle difficulties because of his association with the American Government at a time of active hostilities.

The year 1812 was relatively unproductive as Hassler took possession of only one instrument, that being a Grimaldi and Johnson chronometer bought upon the advice of Dr. John Pond, the Royal Astronomer and Director of the Greenwich Observatory. During this year, he reached agreement with various instrument makers to produce a theodolite two-feet in diameter, a telescope, two transit instruments for fixed observatories, a base line measurement apparatus, barometers, thermometers, a balance, and a standard English brass scale. Hassler personally oversaw the construction of the theodolite "by that distinguished artist, Mr. Edward Troughton of London, agreeably to our united views, and with that interest for its success, which the great friendship with which he was pleased to favour me could alone inspire."(21) A testament to that friendship was noted in the christening of Hassler's eighth child, Edward Troughton Hassler, born July 28, 1813, in London.

Beginning February 9, 1813, Hassler was absent from London on a trip encompassing both personal and professional business. His father had died and left him a small inheritance. He proceeded directly to Switzerland to take care of his family affairs and then went on to Paris to obtain a copy of standardized weights and measures for the United States. He arrived back in London on June 25, 1813. On November 25, 1813, he received instructions from the Treasury Department prolonging his stay in order to assure delivery of the surveying instruments. As hostilities had not terminated between Great Britain and the United States, it is improbable that he could have returned home anyway. In May of 1814, in desperation Hassler moved into the house next door to Troughton's shop to attempt to speed up the production of instruments. However, Mr. Troughton's ill health slowed progress. By November, it was evident that the instruments would not be finished and Hassler moved his family to Paris "on account of their health."(22)

Hassler left his family in Paris and returned to London on February 15, 1815. On March 3, he discovered that the United States Government had disallowed drafts upon his compensation, an indication that the Treasury Department was losing patience with his prolonged stay. Unfortunately, Europe was thrown into turmoil at this time as Napoleon escaped from Elba. Hassler immediately returned to Paris where he was obliged to remain until June because of "severe sickness" in his family. Upon return to London, he began taking delivery of the many instruments which were being produced under contract. Credit for payment for the instruments was arranged but Hassler was refused any further compensation from the Government to provide for his and his family's transportation home.

At this time, John Quincy Adams, Albert Gallatin, and Henry Clay were in London on a diplomatic mission. Adams recorded in his diary that, during a hurried conference of this trio, Hassler came into the room to see Gallatin who 'dismissed him quite abruptly, telling him that he was very much engaged, and, as soon as he was gone, Gallatin said to me, laughing, 'That is a man of very great merit, though I do treat him so roughly. He was sent by the Government to Europe to procure the instruments for the general survey of our coast, but he has outrun his time and his funds, and his instruments cost eight hundred pounds more than was appropriated for them, and he is embarrassed now about getting back to America. I have engaged Messrs. Baring to advance the money for the instruments, and he is to go for his own expenses upon his own credit. He has procured an excellent set of instruments. But he is a great politician though his politics are of the right sort, and he is so great a talker that, as we have not time to spare, I was obliged to send him away.'"(23)

Hassler was experiencing his first taste of those penurious keepers of the public monies, a forerunner of things to come. Concerning the overspending on Hassler's part, the instruments did indeed cost approximately 3,700 pounds sterling and he had overspent the allotted 3,000 pounds sterling. But, he had not been paid his personal salary for close to a year at the time that Adams wrote of meeting him in London, and the fact remains that much of the delay in obtaining the instruments was occasioned by circumstances out of his control. Adding to his monetary woes, he appears to have placed few constraints on his personal spending as he moved his family at least five times during his mission and seems to have had no compunctions about prolonged stays on the Continent in spite of claims of "sickness." Mrs. Hassler was a native of France, and it is not difficult to imagine that some of the impetus for an eight-month sojourn to Paris was generated by her desires as well as the health of the family. Florian Cajori, Hassler's biographer, wrote of this episode, "... a country of almost unlimited resources permitted this able scientist, who was giving his thoughts day after day to the advancement of science and to the glory of his adopted country, to return to America at his own expense and under financial embarrassment. The Government ... permitted Hassler to be personally considerably poorer than he was before he undertook his mission to Europe."(24)

It would be easy to assume that this state of affairs was either the result of policies directed at Hassler personally or at the concept of spending Government monies for science. However, John Quincy Adams wrote in 1818: "The difficulty of filling the foreign missions well is great and increasing. You are aware that the compensation allowed to our ministers at the principal European courts is not only inadequate, but to such a degree that no man can accept and hold one of them more than one or two years, without sacrifice of private property which few of us are able to bear."(25) Hassler's troubles in 1815 were generated by an impersonal bureaucracy and not by any personal discrimination. In this instance, he suffered equally with other public servants assigned to overseas duties.

At last the instruments were finished. On July 25, 1815, Hassler finished packing the instruments and brought them to the London Custom House. On August 8, he and his family departed London for Gravesend to embark on board the ship SUSAN bound for Philadelphia. He arrived in Philadelphia on October 22; over the next month and a half he unpacked and delivered all of the new instruments to Robert Patterson at the University of Pennsylvania, thus completing his mission.


On January 5, 1816, Hassler presented a plan to A. J. Dallas, the Secretary of the Treasury, for putting the Survey of the Coast into operation. After seven months of bureaucratic inertia by the Federal Government, Hassler was appointed Superintendent of the Survey of the Coast on August 3, 1816. His salary was $3,000 per year with an expense account of $2,000 with pay retroactive to June 18, 1816. Although confirmation of his appointment did not reach Hassler until August 16, he took to the field on reconnaissance with three cadets from the United States Military Academy on August 6. This reconnaissance trip was the first field work accomplished in the United States Survey of the Coast. Hassler "proceeded on Long Island, to view Hempstead plains and the hills till Setauket; then passing the Sound, visited the opposite hills of Connecticut, till again to New York."(26) This short reconnaissance trip lasted until August 16 when he went to his friend, Colonel Joseph Swift, in Brooklyn to attend to administrative details and arrange for his family to move to Newark, New Jersey.

By September 8, Hassler was back in the field with his son, Scipio (J. J. S. Hassler), and Major John James Abert accompanying him; over the next few weeks he carried his reconnaissance south to Cape May, New Jersey, and thence up the Delaware River to Philadelphia. On October 16, Hassler and Abert parted company in Philadelphia anticipating continuing operations at Mount Pleasant, south of Stony Brook, Long Island. November 4, Hassler and his son proceeded to the Mount Pleasant area expecting to meet Major Abert and a few enlisted soldiers to begin survey work. Abert and the soldiers did not show up. Hassler then began survey work with only the help of his son and was immediately halted in his work by a lawsuit from a man concerning "some branches of a cedar bush" which Hassler had removed "to make the rest serve as a temporary signal."(27) This was possibly the first lawsuit, but certainly not the last of similar nature, brought against Federal surveyors during the execution of their duties since that cold November day in 1816.

Hassler's problems had not ended, as on November 23 he wrote from Newark, New Jersey, to W. H. Crawford, then Secretary of the Treasury: "I have just received a letter from Major Abert, stating that he had been refused funds which he had required for the public expenditure, to enable him to accompany me in the proposed works, and to defray certain expenditures which I had mentioned to him as to be encountered now, because, according to the arrangement of the Treasury Department with me, funds were to be given only upon a request from myself. We are, therefore, stopped in our further proceedings at present."(28) Thus ended the first few months of field work in the Survey of the Coast.

Hassler remained at his home in Newark during the winter of 1816-1817. He nearly consummated the first State-Federal mapping and surveying agreement with the State of New Jersey at this time. This agreement would have included arrangements for conducting the work in such a manner as to provide control points for an accurate map of New Jersey as well as providing for the needs of the Survey of the Coast. Hassler also pressed for the building of a permanent national astronomical observatory to house some of the instruments that he had procured in England for that purpose. Although an astute politician in his native Switzerland, Hassler misjudged, or did not even consider, the mood of the new administration under President James Monroe. Such considerations as large-scale state surveys and observatories must have raised the suspicions of the Secretary of the Treasury that Hassler entertained the concept of a long-lived Survey of the Coast. Secretary Crawford wrote to him on January 31, 1817, requesting that he "state the probable time which will be required for the execution of this Survey."(29) Hassler responded the best he could, but this question would continue to haunt him and the Survey. The remainder of the winter was spent in preparing for the upcoming field season, particularly in standardizing the bars to be used with his base-measuring apparatus.

Consider for a moment the utter lack of understanding by the national leaders of the nature of the task of charting the coast of the United States. There was a naivete, indicative of the state of scientific and engineering knowledge in the United States during the early Nineteenth Century, when Secretary Crawford asked a man, who had to construct his own measuring instruments, had no vessels, and had only his son for help, how long it would take to complete the Survey of the Coast.

Hassler, seemingly oblivious to upcoming storm clouds, proceeded into the field on April 16, 1817, and conducted a reconnaissance for a baseline in the vicinity of the Palisades on the west shore of the Hudson River. Some of the administrative problems having been ironed out, Major Abert reported on April 13 and was Hassler's principal assistant throughout 1817. On May 7, Hassler began the preliminary measurement of the base assisted by his son and two hired men as Abert was attending to business in Philadelphia. On May 28, Hassler, Abert, and Scipio began the second measurement of the base. This base was measured with a surveyor's chain and not with his newly designed base line measurement apparatus. This first baseline extended from station Cherry Hill to station Vreeland and was 9,446.15 meters in length. The men spent June 10 to July 6 in reconnaissance and signal-building on the hills west of Newark, on Staten Island, and on Long Island. July 6, Major Abert took command of a detachment of 15 soldiers at New York and obtained the necessary camp gear for embarking on triangulation observations at remote locations. On July 15, Hassler proceeded to Station Weasel. (This station is spelled Weasel on the original triangulation diagrams and notes but occasionally Wesel or Wezel in Hassler's Principal Documents.) The next day, Abert left for his home at Mount Holly, New Jersey, in order to move his family to Newark and did not return until August 5. Hassler, once again, had only his son as trained help, and that at his own expense.

Over the next few weeks, Hassler made requests to both the War Department and the Secretary of the Treasury for additional Army officers to be instructed in and then take part in the technical aspects of the work. On August 25 the camp was moved to Station Cranetown, but Hassler was left with minimal help again as Major Abert was placed on sick leave with a good dose of poison ivy. September 3 the camp was moved to Springfield, and on September 9, Abert returned with Lieutenant William G. McNeill from West Point; on September 28, Lieutenant Isaac Adams joined the party. The next day the survey crew moved to Station Vreeland at the south end of the measured base. On October 17, Lieutenant John R. Vinton joined the crew, but the following day Adams and McNeill left to attend court-martial proceedings at West Point. By this time, one can see Hassler ripping out his hair in frustration as he had waited anxiously for these men and invested valuable time training them in survey procedures.

The next month and a half was spent in shifting the base of operations from the New Jersey side of the Hudson River to the west end of Long Island where stations were built and a preliminary measurement of a baseline was accomplished near Gravesend on December 5 and 6. On December 15, Hassler made the decision to stop field work for the winter as "There being no hopes of the weather becoming favorable again, this station was postponed, and we moved home."(30) It would be another fifteen years before Ferdinand Hassler would take to the field again for the Survey of the Coast.


Hassler spent the winter at his home in Newark computing results from the previous field season's work. His correspondence with Secretary Crawford was confined primarily to requesting that his pay, which was in arrears, be sent to him. On April 3, 1818, he wrote to Crawford asking again that his pay, which is now past due, be sent to him; but he also remarked that his computations were nearly completed and that he hoped "to have the honor to present it [the results] to you." Crawford replied:

"SIR: In conformity with the request, contained in your letter of the 3rd instant, measures have been taken for remitting to you the amount of your salary for the last quarter.

"Permit me, sir, to avail myself of this occasion, to apprise you of the absolute necessity for forwarding to this office, without delay, the result of your past labors, accompanied with an estimate, as well as of the time required to complete the Survey of the Coast, as of the probable expense attending the same; for it must not be dissembled, that the little progress hitherto made in the work, has caused general dissatisfaction in Congress, which, if not removed, may lead to a repeal of the law under which you are now acting."(31)

Upon receipt of this message, Hassler immediately wrote a five page letter explaining the work and what had been accomplished. He hand-carried this to Washington, D.C., arriving the night of April 14. He hoped to have an audience with Secretary Crawford the following day. It was too late. In what has to be considered a major travesty of the democratic process, on April 14, Congress enacted a law to only employ "persons belonging to the army or navy" on the Survey of the Coast (32) This in itself did not constitute the suspension of operations of the Survey. However, without Hassler's knowledge and driving force, the Survey ceased to function as an effective organization for the next fifteen years.

There were many reasons for the enactment of this law. First and foremost was the perception by Congress that progress was much too slow. This stemmed from a lack of understanding as to what the task of surveying the coast entailed and a desire for immediate charts for mariners. Given Hassler's resources, he had, in fact, accomplished a tremendous amount in the allotted time. He had conducted reconnaissance for triangulation stations from Connecticut to Cape May and then up Delaware Bay; he had observed angles for many triangles over a fairly large area and measured two base lines; and, he had even established his own standard measuring bars. He did this with his unpaid eighteen-year-old son and Major Abert as his principal technical assistance. Adding to his troubles, he had to solve administrative problems associated with starting the first scientific and technical bureau in the Federal Government. All of these things were accomplished while he was primarily engaged in the field, living in a tent, and traveling by wagon or foot for months at a time. The Government had gotten its money's worth; it just didn't realize it.

Another problem was the divergent motivations of Congress and Hassler regarding the end products of the Survey of the Coast. Hassler saw an opportunity to accomplish a lasting work of value to humankind and reflect scientific glory upon his adopted land. Congress, on the other hand, wanted immediate results in the form of charts guiding mariners in and out of American ports. Nothing more -- nothing less. Congress had no interest in funding a scientific work, even if that science was the basis for accurate charts of our Nation's waters.

This second problem was exacerbated by Hassler's lack of understanding of the reality of American politics. During the year 1817, he immersed himself in the work and had little communication with either the administration (which had just changed) or members of Congress. This weakened his political support and opened the door for lobbyists promising quick cheap results. Chief among these was Navy Chaplain Cheever Felch. Felch was proficient in mathematics and had conducted schools for midshipmen. Felch's argument, and variants of this for years to come, was that "chronometric surveys" conducted by Naval officers (i.e., the use of sextant and chronometer to determine the latitude and longitude of harbors and hazards to navigation) were sufficiently accurate for the needs of the mariner. The argument continued that a geodetic survey to tie all points and hydrographic surveys together was unnecessary and entirely too expensive. In 1818, this argument carried the day.

Another darker argument was raised by a biographer of Hassler. Emil Zschokke wrote in 1877: "For a long time it had been a thorn in the side of American engineers that a foreigner should gain such laurels in preference to them.... Their rancour succeeded in carrying a Bill through Congress by which the Survey was to be turned over to native engineers."(33) It is possible that elements of discrimination against a "foreigner" could have contributed to the removal of Hassler as Superintendent of the Survey of the Coast. The xenophobia of Americans at this time was no secret. During his long career in public service, he was publicly attacked for his accent and even had his loyalty to his adopted land questioned on one occasion.

However, it appears beyond a doubt that concern with economy was the major force leading to turning over the Survey to personnel of the Army and Navy. Mahlon Dickerson was a Senator in 1818 and had voted against the amendment to eliminate Hassler from the Survey. In 1834, when he was Secretary of the Navy and Hassler's superior, he wrote him that the motivation for discontinuance of the survey was strictly economic. In reference to Congress at the time, he added, "In truth, they were not willing to pay what is absolutely required for the accomplishment of so great a work, by men of competent science to complete it."(34)


1. Cajori, F. 1929. The Chequered Career of Ferdinand Rudolph Hassler. p.19. The Christopher Publishing House. Hereafter referred to as "Cajori, 1929."

2. Cajori, F. 1929. p. 19.

3. Cajori, F. 1929. p. 25.

4. Cajori, F. 1929. p.31.

5. Floherty, J. J. 1952. High, Wide, and Deep. p. 16-19. J. B. Lippincott Company.

6. Popkin, R. 1967. The Environmental Science Services Administration. p. 18. Frederick A. Praeger.

7. Cajori, F. 1929. p. 34.

8. Cajori, F. 1929. p. 37 n.

9. Jefferson Papers in the Library of Congress, Original Manuscript Series 2, Vol. 43, p. 33. In: Cajori, F. 1929. p.41-42.

10. Act of February 10, 1807 (2 Stat. L., 413) - An Act to provide for surveying the coasts of the United States.

11. Jefferson Correspondence, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. In: Cajori, F. p. 41.

12. Hassler, F.R. 1825. Papers on Various Subjects connected with the Survey of the Coast of the United States. p.232. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, Volume II, New Series, Philadelphia. Hereafter referred to as: Hassler, F.R. 1825. Papers ....

13. The first question seems odd, but when looked at in the context of the second question, it must refer to whether or not observers are required on shore to help determine the vessel's location. Hassler responds to the second question that the "problem of the three points... might often be applied..." He goes on to explain the uncertainty caused by the observer being located on or near the periphery of the circle on which the three points lay "in which case it becomes indeterminate..." Today's hydrographers call such a geometric condition a swinger.

14. Hassler, F.R. 1825. Papers.... p. 234-240.

15. In: Cajori, F. 1929. p. 50.

16. In: Cajori, F. 1929. p. 51.

17. In: Cajori, F. 1929. p. 53.

18. Letter from Colonel Jonathan Williams to Hassler, Jan. 1, 1810. Hassler Collection, New York Public Library. In: Cajori, F. 1929. p. 56.

19. Smith, Edward S.C. 1958. Ferdinand Rudolph Hassler Union Worthies Number Thirteen. p.8. Union College, Schenectady, New York.

20. Ferguson, J. 1836. Letter in North American Review, Vol. 42. p. 81-82. In: Cajori, F. 1929. p. 68.

21. Hassler, F.R. 1825. Papers ...., p. 296.

22. Hassler, F.R. 1834. Principal Documents Relating to the Survey of the Coast. p.28. New York. Hereafter referred to as: Hassler, F. R. 1834. Principal Documents.... Hassler published three volumes of Principal Documents. All three can be found in two bound volumes in the Records Management Section of the Office of the National Geodetic Survey of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration located in Silver Spring, Maryland. The first volume is: Coast Survey Report 1816-1836 and includes Volume I and Volume II of the Principal Documents. The second volume is Coast Survey Report and Miscellany 1816-1843. This bound document includes Volume III of the Principal Documents as well as numerous early documents related to weights and measures and the Congressional inquiries of 1841-1843.

23. Adams, Charles F. Editor. 1874. Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, Vol. III. p. 248. Philadelphia. In: Cajori, F. 1929. p.66.

24. Cajori, F. 1929. p.66.

25. Ford, W.C. Editor. 1915. The Writings of John Quincy Adams, Vol. VI. p. 381-382. New York. In: Cajori, F. 1929. p. 67.

26. Hassler, F. R. 1834. Principal Documents.... p. 30.

27. Hassler, F. R. 1834. Principal Documents.... p. 31.

28. Hassler, F. R. 1834. Principal Documents.... p.13.

29. Hassler, F. R. 1834. Principal Documents.... p.32.

30. Hassler, F. R. 1834. Principal Documents.... p. 34.

31. Hassler, F. R. 1834. Principal Documents.... p. 16.

32. Chapter LVIII - An Act to repeal part of the act entitled "An Act to provide for surveying the coasts of the United States." Stat. I, Vol. 3, p. 425. Enacted April 14, 1818.

33. Norris, Rosalie Laetitia Hassler. 1882. Translation from German: Zschokke, E. 1877. Memoirs of Ferdinand Rudolph Hassler. Aarau, Switzerland, 1877. With Supplementary Documents Published in 1882., p.21. Nice. A copy of this document resides at the American Philosophical Society headquarters in Philadelphia while a second copy resides with the descendants of Hassler. Cajori refers to this document as Zschokke, Memoirs. Emil Zschokke had published a small biographical sketch of Ferdinand Hassler, but Rosalie Hassler Norris, the second daughter of Ferdinand, apparently collected and oversaw the publication of the complete document of over 561 pages. See page 15 of Cajori for a complete explanation of his usage of the Translation from German.... regarding this document. Hereafter, this document is referred to as "Norris."

34. Hassler, F. R. 1835. Second Volume of Principal Documents Relating to the Survey of the Coast. p. 48. New York. Hereafter referred to as: Hassler, F. R. 1835. Second Volume....

Return to Contents

  Last modified:    Fri, 30-Nov-2007 21:36 UTC Library.Reference@noaa.gov
Dept. of Commerce - NOAA - NESDIS - NCEI
* External link: You will be leaving the Federal
   Government by following an external link.
USA.gov - The U.S. Government's Web Portal