A Snowstorm On Dent du Midi

On the first day of September 1902, a 24-year-old Swiss surveyor stood behind his theodolite on the summit of 10,686-foot-high Dent du Midi, a prominent peak in the Bernese Alps overlooking the great bend of the Rhone to the southeast of Lake Geneva. It had taken nearly three hours to adjust his instrument in preparation for the observations he had come to make, oblivious to a gathering thunderstorm. Before he had time to complete his painstaking triangulation, snow was blowing all around him and, for all practical purposes, the day was a total loss.

Most surveyors would have cursed the rotten weather as they trudged, step after weary step, back down the mountain and into the late summer warmth of the valley, but not Heinrich Wild (pronounced veeld). Since 1899 he had been surveying for the Swiss Federal Topographic Survey in Berne, and he was only too familiar with weather on Alpine mountain tops. He could live with the weather, if only he had a better theodolite.

The annoying incident atop Dent du Midi started him thinking about building better survey instruments. There must be a way, he reasoned, to change the design of the critical conical standing axis and screw microscopes, which until then had to be regulated and calibrated with each setup, wasting precious time needed for observation. In his imaginative mind new ideas were soon taking shape.

First he found a technique of simultaneously reading the circle at two diametrically opposite graduations in one eyepiece, for which he took out his first patent on January 5, 1907. Next he patented a military range finder, which he had designed in response to a competition.

Looking for a manufacturer for his inventions, he approached the firm of Carl Zeiss in the German city of Jena. Zeiss had not made any surveying instruments up to that time, but appreciated the brilliant designs of the young inventor. With an offer to head a newly established branch in their firm, Heinrich Wild moved his family to Jena in the spring of 1908.

In Jena he built his first precision level. The level had an inner focussing lens, allowing for a telescope of constant length that increased the pointing accuracy and made it rustproof. It also had a reversible tubular level. The halved images at both ends of its bubble could be brought into coincidence via a system of prisms by turning a tilting screw, a revolutionary idea that has since been adopted by the entire instrument industry. In 1911, Wild designed a theodolite in which the images of the two diametrically opposite circle graduations appeared on top of each other in one reading microscope. He was also already experimenting with an automatic level based on a mercury horizon.

World War I and military service in the Swiss artillery interrupted his work at Zeiss. At war’s end he returned to Jena, and in 1920 he produced his Zeiss Th1 theodolite. But postwar Germany was a poor place to raise a family with nine children, and Wild returned to Switzerland. In Heerbrugg, Wild and two partners founded the firm of Heinrich Wild in April of 1921. On December 21, 1923, the first two models of the famous T2, destined to become one of the great surveying instruments of all time, left the plant.

The rapid development of aerial photography and ssociated equipment, much of it developed by Wild in Heerbrugg, helped to spread the name of Wild throughout the surveying world. The company grew from a modest 30-man work force in 1923 to 260 by the end of 1930, with sales representatives in 27 countries. Also in 1930, the Federal University of Technology in Zurich bestowed on him the honorary degree of Doctor of Technical Sciences.

Unfortunately for his enterprise, the beginning of the Great Depression put severe stress on the management of the young firm, causing Wild to quit the company late in 1932.

Freed from the pressure of running a production plant, Wild became a free-lance designer and inventor. In 1935 he received a contract from the Swiss manufacturer Kern and Co. to design a new theodolite. The result was first the DK2, then the DKM3, featuring a mirror-lens telescope with an erect image and a focal length of 430 mm. The new design was adapted to the DKM2 and finally the midget DKM1.

Wild’s association with Kern ended only with his death in 1951. Until the end, he experimented with and invented new and ever more precise surveying and mapping instruments. The surveying profession owes Wild for the tools that make the present standards of accuracy and efficiency possible. Three giants of the precision instrument industryZeiss, Wild Heerbrugg and Kernowe their success in large part to the brilliant ideas of this surveyor turned inventor.

The snowstorm on Dent du Midi had blotted out the view on that distant September day, yet it gave impetus to genius that has greatly improved our vision into the world we measure.

Source: Strasser, Georg. Heinrich Wild 1877/1917, Wild Reporter, Wild Heerbrugg Ltd., December 1977.

About the Author

Fred Roeder, LS

Fred Roeder lives in Tularosa, New Mexico. He emigrated to the United States from Germany in 1957 and spent most of his surveying career in the Southwest, working for the U.S. Forest Service. Now retired, he started writing a regular column for the New Mexico Professional Surveyors Newsletter in 1988. In 1994, NMPS produced Antepasados, a book of his columns. Many surveyors are good writers, especially about technical or legal matters. However, it's not often that we find a surveyor/story-teller who can present historical facts in a manner that makes them fun to read. Fred Roeder is such a writer and we are pleased to present more than 80 of his stories here. Bibliography is a list of the books Fred used in his writings, and includes a numbered index of the articles. Index is a list of all the articles Fred has written and when. Editor's pick: The King Who Had No Title
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