Popular Science Monthly/Volume 34/January 1889/Gauss and the Electric Telegraph


WE have been favored with the following interesting letter, giving some facts in relation to Prof. Gauss in addition to the sketch of this distinguished mathematician which appeared in "The Popular Science Monthly" for September, 1888, and inclosing the appended extracts from letters by Gauss in regard to his invention of a form of electric telegraph:

Denver, Colorado, October 24, 1888.
Dr. W. J. Youmans, New York.

Dear Sir: Please allow me, as a grandson of Carl Friedrich Gauss, the German mathematician, to thank you for the sketch of his life and works which appeared in the September number of "The Popular Science Monthly." I should have made this acknowledgment long ago, and intended doing so, but for various reasons postponed it from time to time, for which I beg your pardon.

There are two slight errors in your article, one, at least, of which is hardly worth mentioning. The first is in regard to the date of Prof. Gauss's birth. "The Popular Science Monthly" article says that he was born on April 23, 1777. In fact, however, he was born on April 30th of that year.

The other error amounts to little, but perhaps you may think it worth correcting. You say that he and Prof. Weber sent telegraphic signals from Göttingen to a neighboring town. They were, in fact, sent only from the astronomical observatory to the physical cabinet, which was under the direction of Prof. Weber; this was in 1833. The wire used was about eight thousand feet long; it was destroyed by a stroke of lightning in 1845. On pages 64 and 65 of "Gauss zum Gedächtniss," by W. Sartorius von Waltershausen, there is a description of this telegraphic line. In a work entitled, I believe, "Electricity in the Service of Man," there is a picture of the telegraphic apparatus used by Gauss and Weber.

Inclosed herewith I send yon a translation of parts of two letters written by Gauss in regard to the telegraph; they will explain themselves. I also send a copy of the original, for possibly the translation is not wholly correct. The last letter written by Prof. Gauss was to Sir David Brewster, in relation to the early discovery of the electric telegraph. I have tried to obtain either the original or a copy of this letter, but thus far I have not succeeded. I regret this all the more, for the reason that I believe it would be of interest to the public if it were published.

It may be of interest to you to know that one of Prof. Gauss's children is still living. He is my father, and he resides in the country a short distance from the town of Columbia, Mo, He is now in his seventy-eighth year. His name is Eugene. Another son, William, came to America about 1836, and died in St. Louis, Mo., in 1879. Gauss's youngest child, a daughter named Theresa, resided with her father in Göttingen at the time of his death. She herself died about twenty years ago in Europe. These were children by his second marriage. Also, by his first marriage. Gauss had two sons and one daughter. The oldest, Joseph, became "Oberbaurath" of Hanover. He died in the city of Hanover in 1873. The daughter, Minna, became the wife of Prof. Ewald, the author of a "History of the People of Israel" and a number of commentaries on different books of the Old Testament. As a Hebraist he ranked as high as, I believe, if not higher than. Gauss as a mathematician. The youngest of the children by the first marriage, Louis, died in infancy. Ewald's wife died in 1840. None of Gauss's descendants have exhibited remarkable talent in any way.

I trust I have not wearied you with these family matters.

Very truly, etc., R Gauss.

P. S.—By the way, Prof. Weber is still living, and to-day is his birthday. He is eighty-four years old.

At a meeting of the Electro-Technic Association held in Berlin in 1883, Prof. W. Forster, director of the Berlin Observatory, read the following extracts from letters written by Prof. C. F. Gauss, of Göttingen, in relation to the early invention of the electric telegraph:

"I don't remember," writes Gauss to Olbers, on the 20th of November of the year 1833, "my having made any previous mention to you of an astonishing piece of mechanism that we have devised. It consists of a galvanic circuit conducted through wires stretched through the air over the houses up to the steeple of St. John and down again, and connecting the observatory with the physical laboratory, which is under the direction of Weber. The entire length of wire may be computed at about eight thousand feet. Both ends of the wire are connected with a multiplicator, the one at my end consisting of one hundred and seventy, that in Weber's laboratory of fifty coils of wire, each wound around a one-pound magnet suspended according to a method which I have devised. By a simple contrivance—which I have named a commutator—I can reverse the current instantaneously. Carefully operating my voltaic pile, I can cause so violent a motion of the needle in the laboratory to take place that it strikes a bell, the sound of which is audible in the adjoining room. This serves merely as an amusement. Our aim is to display the movements with the utmost accuracy. We have already made use of this apparatus for telegraphic experiments, which have resulted successfully in the transmission of entire words and small phrases. This method of telegraphing has the advantage of being quite independent of either daytime or weather; the one who gives the signal and the one who receives it remain in their rooms, with, if they desire it, the shutters drawn. The employment of sufficiently stout wires, I feel convinced, would enable us to telegraph with but a single tap from Göttingen to Hanover, or from Hanover to Bremen."

The following remarks occur in a letter written by Gauss to H. C. Shumacher, dated August 6, 1835: "In more propitious circumstances than mine, important applications of this method could, no doubt, be made, enuring to the advantage of society and exciting the wonder of the multitude. With an annual budget of one hundred and fifty thalers for observatory and magnetic laboratory together (I make this statement to you in strictest confidence) no grand experiments can be made. Could thousands of dollars be expended upon it, I believe electro-magnetic telegraphy could be brought to a state of perfection, and made to assume such proportions as almost to startle the imagination. The Emperor of Russia could transmit his orders without intermediate stations, in a minute, from Petersburg to Odessa, even peradventure to Kiakhta, if a copper wire of sufficient strength were conducted safely across and attached at both ends to powerful batteries, and with well-trained managers at both stations. I deem it not impossible to design an apparatus that would render a dispatch almost as mechanically as a chime of bells plays a tune that has been arranged for it. One hundred millions' worth of copper wire would amply suffice for a continuous chain to reach the antipodes; for half the distance, a quarter as much, and so on, in proportion to the square of the distance."

At the same meeting the following dispatch was sent to Prof. William Weber, at Göttingen: "The Electro-Technic Association celebrates to-day the year 1883, as the fiftieth anniversary of the first successful operation of the electric telegraph, and salutes you as the still surviving associate in that great achievement. At the same time it expresses renewed homage for Gauss, who at that period, in conjunction with you at Göttingen, achieved so great a result, and at the same time clearly recognized the future of this creation."