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Prof. Hans Ziegler - About my Life

Hans Ziegler, Rüschlikon May 15th, 1973, with later additions

My Personal Resume

My grandfather on my father’s side Hans Heinrich Ziegler-Schaeppi, although a descendant of an old Winterthur family, was the son of a poor shoemaker. With the help of scholarships, which at those times were still considered honourable loans, he worked himself up and reached the status of a practical doctor. His wife Louise was not only responsible for the household, but also for his consulting room. Besides, she was fluent in literature, as was her sister Sophie Schaeppi in painting, and in her posthumous assets one finds not only prose literature, but also charming and probably most precious poems. Our mother Clara descended from a Toesstal manufacturing family named Nussberger. She was the youngest child of the second marriage of her father and became an orphan at the age of four. Like my grandfather, my father also chose to become a doctor. He had decidedly strong technical gifts and therefore it was not a coincidence that he established himself as a specialist for accidents. During many years he was the only X-ray diagnosing specialist in Winterthur. In the so called “Hohen Haus” at the lower end of the Museumsstrasse, which at this point does not merit its name anymore, but has remained a doctor’s house according to our wish, my sister, my brother and I spent a happy childhood. Our education was furthered greatly by two lady helpers: Ida Oertli, who was responsible for the consulting room of my father, and Kathri Rüedi, who was the family cook. Both were farmer daughters of the Zurich Weinland and the Klettgau, both made of the best old wood of the Gotthelf stories.

My development was, it seems, much dependent upon fate. My father, who as a doctor was also responsible for the staff of the Loki-factory (producing railway locomotives), saw my future as a mechanic who would once set up steam engines and diesel motors for the famous Loki factory of Winterthur throughout the whole world. The path to this profession would have led through secondary school. This plan seemed very promising to me, but when I realized that most of my friends chose to attend the Gymnasium I was seized by the herd instinct. I passed the entry exam for the “Kantonsschule” with some difficulties, but after six and a half years rehabilitated myself with the Matura.
“I submitted to the wish of my father and enrolled in the faculty of Mechanical Engineering at the ETH.”
At the Gymnasium we had some excellent teachers, especially the classical philologist Franz Fankhauser, who awakened a strong love of linguistics, as well as the early deceased Emmy Weidmann, who introduced us not only to the English language and literature, but also in the Anglo-Saxon way of life. When entering the ETH (Eidgenössische Technische Hochsschule) the same old dilemma repeated itself. Should I choose etymology, English language and literature, physics or engineering sciences? Today’s generation would have a kick about it, but I submitted to the wish of my father and enrolled in the faculty of Mechanical Engineering at the ETH. Naturally, I was fascinated with these studies by the precise theoretical fundamentals like mathematics and descriptive geometry, which was taught by my later friend Walter Saxer and then especially mechanics, which was taught by my much esteemed and worldwide known teacher Ernst Meissner. When in the advanced semesters it came to the applications of these theories with their unavoidable uncleanliness and compromises which I deeply detested, I lost interest and changed with the consent of my father to Physics where I attended the lectures of Paul Scherrer and especially Wolfgang Pauli, and where at the end I finalized my studies with success.

Parallel with the studies in our country, as everyone knows, military service takes place. I would have liked to become a pilot. Here I encountered the decided veto of my father, but in his boundless generosity he encouraged me to choose between all the other branches of the army. As a consequence I began probably the most shameless thing in my life, for I said: “If not pilot then dragoner”. I confess frankly, that even if I did not refuse the later change to the motorized troops, I never regretted this imprudence throughout my life. The beginnings were certainly hard. But how many happy hours have I spent riding horseback since, how many great horseback comrades have I gotten to know and, even if I was never a psychologist, I believe to have felt and enjoyed some of the subtle harmony which weld horse and rider into a single being.

With the conclusion of my ETH studies the question of choice of profession came up and in this question also I made a decision which seems irrational. Among the team of mathematicians and physicists who seemed so pseudo-witty and yet were driven by elitism and cool consciousness and to whom I now belonged, as a result of my dissertation, I did not feel comfortable all my life. Therefore I took the occasion with both hands, when Ernst Meissner, whom I knew not only as an applied mathematician but as a man of integrity and a warm personality, despite his occasional austerity, offered me a position as an assistant in Mechanics. So at the end in a certain sense, I became a mechanic after all.
Already after one year Meissner and my father offered me the possibility to work for two years with Professor Grammel in Stuttgart and to get my doctorate with this opportunity. With this, the possibility opened up to marry my dear Erika Bühler, whom I had met four years earlier. She descended from a Zurich merchant family with roots in the peasantry. During the two years in Stuttgart we belonged fully to ourselves and they initialized a happy and probably most rare harmonious life together which was blessed at some intervals with the birth of our three children Hansheinrich, Regula and Cornelia.

In spring 1939 the president of the ETH at that time, Arthur Rohn called me back in order to offer me a teaching assignment and in1942 a chair as successor of Ernst Meissner for the German speaking Mechanics classes. In connection with the war the first two years were interrupted a great deal with my active service in the army.
“... the possibility opened up to marry my dear Erika Bühler.”
But this was also beneficial as I could serve as an Adjudant and Information Officer to Hans Bühler, a gentleman, who in the best sense truly earned this term. As commander of the regiment cavalry and a brigade commander he was a daring jumper and military horseback rider, besides being a sculptor and entrepreneur. He was very demanding and yet a fatherly friend to those whose trust he considered to be worthy.
Around this time, as the family grew, we had to look out for a new apartment. We found it in Rüschlikon and a few years later we bought a house there; old, uncomfortable, but in a rarely peaceful location with a fantastic view. Our grandfather’s house at the Stadtgarten in Winterthur (the “Sulzberg”) had been lost shortly before. This hurt us lifelong. Only the deep friendship with the former director of the cantonal bank, Jakob Fischbacher with his sensitive wife and their wide circle of friends compensated us after some time, and the feeling of living basically as strangers faded.

There is not exceptionally much to tell about the 38 years of my professional career, during which I gave the Mechanics lectures and many special lectures at the ETH. I received my strongest impulses always from demanding teachers and superiors and therefore it is no coincidence that I myself became known as a demanding teacher. Leading positions in the scientific hierarchy have tempted me as little as the military ones, most especially because I did not have the talent for them. I also avoided the “exchange business” of scientific honours.
Thrown by far at too young, at an age of only 28 years into the scientific career, I had especially to prove myself in my profession. Besides textbooks for students I mainly wrote several small scientific works and even if these publications have not been much noticed in Switzerland, the resonance in foreign countries has always motivated me. Besides the honorary doctorate of the Technical University of Munich, and some plenary lectures at international conferences, the greatest honours which included also my family, were the three full one-year professorships in the USA, the first of which was in Providence at Brown University, then the Jerome Clark Hunsaker professorship at MIT and last, but not least, a Distinguished Visiting Professorship at Ohio State University. The summer months we usually spent in California and this gave us the possibility to travel on different routes through the continent with its endless flats and wide areas, across the still not spoiled Rocky Mountains. In a cabin which we built later in the mountains we spent many wonderful days and many stimulating hours thanks to an Adjoint Professorship at the University of Colorado.
“... that my life had been an unusually rich and happy one.”
My experiences in the US had also a practical consequence: my chair which was originally built up after a classical German concept eventually changed to a Fachgruppe and finally to an institute with a largely democratic structure. I opposed all anarchistic tendencies at the ETH with the necessary foresight and strength and as a result was successful. For me this was almost a small miracle, thinking of the stage fright with which in the times of my first teaching I walked up to the lectern.
I hardly exaggerate by stating that my life had been an unusually rich and happy one. A gracious fate, which we like to personalize with God or the gods, has spoiled me indeed and has presented me with generous parents and with a life companion who was more indulgent and understanding than I could ever have wished, as well as with loving and always attached children. I want to thank especially you, Erika, from the bottom of my heart for all the love, which you had given me throughout so many years, and for the courageous words, with which you gave me strength in all the situations that seemed hopeless and for your wise advice, which enabled us to make all important decisions in full agreement. You have been my good comrade. Accept all my thanks for it.
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