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Aarau - “surveying capital” of Switzerland at the turn of the 19th century

Aarau: a city which, given the prominent role it played in the development of Switzerland’s modern national topographical surveys at the turn of the 19th century, could also be called the “capital of Swiss surveying”.

Johann Rudolf Meyer (1739–1813)

Contemporary portrait of Johann Rudolf Meyer
Johann Rudolf Meyer

Despite coming from a humble background, Johann Rudolf Meyer managed to amass a vast fortune thanks to the success of his silk ribbon manufacturing business. He used a great deal of this wealth to fund various charitable projects for the common good of the public.

“Schon lange wusste ich, dass Allgemein eine gute Schweizer Karte gewünscht wurde”: having realised that Switzerland needed a reliable national map, Meyer set about transforming this idea into reality with vigour. Between 1786 and 1797, he commissioned Joachim Eugen Müller (1752–1833) to produce a relief of the Swiss Alps to a scale of approximately 1:60,000. The engineer Johann Heinrich Weiss (1758–1826) was then able to use this landscape relief, together with his own measurements, to draw up the Atlas Suisse in Aarau. This map series was published between 1796 and 1802 in 16 sheets to a scale of approximately 1:120,000. 

Historic map
The Aarau region in sheet 2 of the Atlas of Switzerland (1800)
© Aargauisches Geografisches Informationssystem AGIS

Ferdinand Rudolf Hassler (1770–1843)

Contemporary portrait of Ferdinand Rudolf Hassler
Ferdinand Rudolf Hassler

Ferdinand Rudolf Hassler was born in Aarau and went on to measure the 13-kilometre baseline in the “Grosses Moos” (Great Marsh) region at the age of 21, with the help of funding from his professor. In the years to follow, this baseline was linked with angle measurements to produce triangulations. This, combined with astronomical observations conducted by Hassler, meant that by around 1800 he could calculate the coordinates of around 50 points between the Chasseron mountain and the Hörnli mountain in the Zürcher Oberland region. In 1799, during the period of the Helvetic Republic, Hassler wrote an exposé entitled “Über ein Vermessungsbüro”, in which he called for a thorough national topographical survey. Yet this political regime was too short-lived for such a large-scale project to be realised. Hassler eventually felt that there was no future left for him in Switzerland as it was at that time, a country governed “by the grace of Napoleon”, so he emigrated to the United States of America to explore new fields of work: “I left in consequence my native place the 15th of May 1805, with wife, children, servants, and besides 96 trunks or bales or similar for down the Rhine.” He then became Superintendent of the Coast Survey (now NOAA). You can find out more about Hassler’s work at

Handwritten notes with coordinates
Hassler's list of coordinates dating from around 1800, with the "main results of the survey"

Philipp Albert Stapfer (1766–1840)

Zeitgenössisches Porträt von Philipp Albert Stapfer
Philipp Albert Stapfer

The summer of 1798 saw the birth of the political concept for a national topographical survey of the Helvetic Republic in the city of Aarau. It was drawn up by Philipp Albert Stapfer, who was minister of fine arts and sciences.

In his exposé regarding a Bureau de renseignements géographiques et statistiques sur l’Helvétie and a Bureau du Cadastre, Stapfer came to the conclusion that, in political terms, such a major undertaking as a national survey was a task for the government. To achieve this, it was fundamentally important for there to be a centralised Helvetic government and an interest in creating a standardised national survey. During the time of the Old Swiss Confederacy, it had been left up to the individual cantons to take the initiative when it came to carrying out surveys and producing maps and plans.

The first few lines of Stapfer’s survey concept for the Helvetic Republic, including his ideas on cadastral surveying:

Bureau de renseignements géographiques et statistiques sur l’Helvétie – Bureau du Cadastre

Il n'est pas douteux qu'une connaissance exacte et complète d'un pays administré ne soit le premier besoin d'un bon gouvernement. Le fondement indispensable de cette connaissance est sans con-tredit une division géométrique de tout son territoire, accompagnée de tableaux statistiques et économiques de ses ressources, de ses moyens, de ses productions industrielles et naturelles, de sa population, de tout le détail enfin qui concerne l'état politique, économique, commercial et domestique des citoyens. Ces notices, ne devraient pas être dispersées ça et là, disséminées dans les différents bureaux des ministres, mais systématiquement recueillies et réunies dans un seul dépôt, où chaque branche de l'administration, même les législateurs, pourraient puiser des renseignements de toute espèce sur leur pays.

However, it was not until 1838 that a state surveying authority was eventually set up – the Bureau topographique federal – which, thanks to the energetic and untiring efforts of Dufour, would bring about the first golden age of national surveying in Switzerland.


  • Aarau – “surveying capital” of Switzerland at the turn of the 19th century
    In the transition to modern surveying, Aarau was the “surveying capital” of Switzerland at the turn of the 19th century. Two outstanding exponents of mapping and surveying at that time, silk ribbon manufacturer Johann Rudolf Meyer and mathematician, physicist and lawyer Ferdinand Rudolf Hassler lived and worked here, and this was also where politician Philipp Albert Stapfer drafted a political concept for surveying Switzerland.
    PDF, 4 page(s), 717 KB, German

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Federal Office of Topography swisstopo

Seftigenstrasse 264
P.O. Box
3084 Wabern


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