Albin Herzog

Quick Info

26 October 1852
Homburg, Thurgau canton, Switzerland
13 June 1909
Mammern, Switzerland

Albin Herzog was a Swiss mathematician who was director of the ETH Zurich. His main interest was in mechanics.


Albin Herzog's father Johann was a teacher. Albin first attended primary school in his native village, then secondary school in Steckborn, and then the Kantonsschule in Frauenfeld, Thurgau's capital. In some obituaries [4] it is commented that he always walked to school, an hour each way, regardless of the weather. His mathematics teachers in Frauenfeld were Wilhelm Schoch and his future colleague Rebstein.

Herzog was a very good student and matriculated at the Polytechnic in Zürich in 1870. He studied mathematics at the Department for Mathematics and Physics Teachers until 1874. The lecturers who influenced him most were Schwarz, Karl Culmann and Weber, as well as Geiser. After his graduation Herzog received a prize for solving a problem posed at his department, and in 1875 he received a doctorate from the University of Zürich for his thesis Bestimmung einiger specieller Minimalflächen (Determining Some Special Minimal Surfaces).

In the same year he became assistant to Ludwig Kargl (1846-1875) and habilitated as Privatdozent at the Polytechnic. Herzog took on Kargl's lectures during the professor's illness and after his death. In 1877 Herzog was appointed to a full professorship in applied mechanics, which was quite unusual for the time given his young age. He held this post until his death in 1909.

Herzog was head of the Mechanical-Technical Department for some years, but stepped down from this post when he succeeded his good friend Geiser as Director of the Polytechnic (1895-1899). Geiser acted as Herzog's deputy. Together they founded the Polytechnic's Civil Fund for Widows and Orphans, but Herzog seems to have been the driving force behind the project. During his term in office he also actively supported his younger colleagues in creating an engineering laboratory. As a result, the Polytechnic was one of the first technical universities that could offer its students the opportunity to do practical work.

The 'exceptionally gifted' [3] teacher Herzog was renowned for his inspiring lectures. He was one of the first to bridge the gap between the mathematical basis of mechanics and practical applications of the subject. At the time there were two schools of thought in mechanics: one that advocated classical mechanics based on Lagrange's work, and one that that tried to explain mechanics in popular terms. Deeming the first as too analytical and missing rigour in the second, Herzog based his lectures on Jacob Bernoulli's work and a synthetic approach. He was very successful with this method; his talent for combining theory and applications 'are already apparent in his thesis [...], according to his competent friend [...] Geiser' [6]. In special, highly popular seminars he introduced his students to more advanced work by Maxwell and Minkowski, amongst others. The School Board named him a "life-long teacher" [5].

Engineering companies often asked him to help them solve practical problems, and in particular to recommend young engineers to them. Herzog was committed to further talented students; he also knew the name and background of every student at the Polytechnic [6]. When the young Einstein failed the Polytechnic's entry exam in 1895, Herzog recommended him to the Kantonsschule in Aarau, where Einstein indeed obtained the Matura. Having been a keen singer in his student years, Herzog supported the student choir throughout his life.

Beside his teaching and administrative duties, Herzog still found time to do research. He was 'always busy with some new problem' [6], but subjected his work to a very strict self-censorship. His published research papers concern problems in applied mechanics, such as Beitrag zur Theorie des Fachwerkes , (1890 and 1891) and Über den Beschleunigungszustand eines Kurbelviereckes (1901).

In 1877, Herzog married Elise Bucher from Regensberg (canton Zürich), the daughter of Nationalrat Bucher. They had three sons, two of whom became jurists and one became a chemist, and one daughter. The family lived in Hottingen, and Herzog was president of the municipality's school authority (1889-1893). He resumed his position when Hottingen was incorporated into Zürich in 1893. Furthermore, he was a member of the Great City Council of Zürich from 1895-1898.

On the occasion of the Polytechnic's 50th anniversary in 1905, Herzog was one of its professors who were awarded honorary citizenship of the town Zürich. The other mathematicians honoured in this way were Franel, Graf and Lacombe. Herzog was a member of the Polytechnic's alumni association, the Gesellschaft Ehemaliger Polytechniker (GEP) and the Schweizerische Naturforschende Gesellschaft. The street "Herzogstrasse" in the District 7 in Zürich was named after him in 1910 [7].

The original committee invited Herzog to join the organising committee of the first International Congress of Mathematicians in his capacity as Director of the Polytechnic in November 1896. He was tied up with business on 12 November 1896, but attended all the other committee meetings. He chaired the amusement committee, which organised the congress outings and dinners together with the reception committee. Herzog, Rudio and Hurwitz were the most active committee members with regards to organising the social side of the congress.

Herzog's position and connections proved useful for securing the necessary subventions from the authorities. While Geiser used his contacts in the Bundesrat and the Kantonsrat Zürich, Herzog discussed the town Zürich's financial contribution with councillor Grob [2].

At the congress itself, Herzog chaired section IV: Mechanics and Mathematical Physics

Having suffered from diabetes and frequent headaches, Albin Herzog died on 13 June 1909 from a stroke.

References (show)

  1. S U Eminger, C F Geiser and F Rudio: the men behind the First International Congress of Mathematicians St Andrews PhD thesis (2014) 112-113 /Publications/Eminger.pdf
  2. ETH Library Archive: Hs 194: 10, correspondence J Kohler - F Bützberger
  3. T Fuchs, Herzog, Albin, in Historisches Lexikon der Schweiz:
  4. Obituary of A Herzog in: Schweizerische Bauzeitung 53 (25), 1909, 329-330
  5. Obituary of A Herzog in: Zürcher Wochen-Chronik 26, 26 June 1909
  6. A Stodola, Prof. Dr. Albin Herzog 1852-1909, Verhandlungen der Schweizerischen Naturforschenden Gesellschaft 92, 1909, 82-95

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Written by Stefanie Eminger, University of St Andrews
Last Update August 2015