William Würdemann, Surveyor and Mathematical Instrument Maker

William was born Wilhelm C. F. (Conrad Fredrich?) Würdemann. Grandfather of Dr. Harry Vanderbilt Wurdemann who is also discussed on this blog and in the photo gallery.


Smithsonian Biographies

William Würdemann(1811–1900)—known for having had “a decided influence on observers and instrument makers throughout the United States, as he introduced among us extreme German methods where extreme English methods had formerly prevailed”—was born in Bremen, studied in Heidelberg, and moved to Washington, D.C., to work for the United States Coast Survey. In 1836, having proved his worth, Würdemann became the Survey’s Chief Mechanician. He went into business on his own in 1849, advertising as a Mathematical and Optical Instrument Manufacturer, but maintaining a cosy relationship with the Coast Survey. He supervised the Survey’s instrument shop in 1867–1869; his son Charles worked in that shop in the early 1870s; and he always had easy access to their dividing engine and other machine tools. While the Coast Survey was Würdemann’s most important customer, he made instruments for other federal agencies as well. Würdemann also helped Camill Fauth, Edward Kubel, George N. Saegmuller, and other German instruments makers get their start in the United States. Würdemann’s shop closed in 1881.

Ref: Steven Turner, “William Würdemann: First Mechanician of the U.S. Coast Survey,” Rittenhouse 5 (1991): 97–110.

A Brief History of Geomagnetism and A Catalog of the Collections of the National Museum of American History


“The earliest American-made instruments in the present collection are a dip circle (No. 31, Figure 61) by William Wurdemann of Washington that was in use by 1863, and a magnetometer (No. 6, Figure 35) by William
Grunow, a German immigrant who was active as an instrument-maker in New York City from 1861.”

“A “Table of Magnetic Results,’ published by the Survey  in its Report for 1881, lists observations dating from the 1830s and gives some indication of the instruments used.   Most of the Survey’s early observations were made with instruments borrowed from other sources, notably the Smithsonian and the Naval Observatory. A Barrow dip circle no. 4 is mentioned in use in various locations into the 1870s (it was used in Central Park, New York City, in 1872). The aformentioned Wurdemann dip circle was still in use in 1881, when it was carried down the west coast,from Sitka to San Diego.”

“The Smithsonian observatory had been a joint venture of the Institution and the Coast Survey, and so was the one at Key West. However, the Smithsonian was leaving the field of geomagnetic research. Its instruments were apparently transferred to the Coast Survey, for when LI. Hayes made an expedition to “the arctic seas” in 1860 he borrowed instruments from the Coast Survey, a magnetometer by W. R. Jones and the aforementioned Patton dip circle, which had been improved by new needles by William Wurdemann, now an employee of the Survey.”

“FIGURE 61.—Nos. 31, 35, 38, Inclinometers (Dip Circles), ca. 1860-1900. The instrument at the right (No. 31) was made about 1863 by William Wurdemann (1811-1900), a native of Bremen. Wurdemann was brought to the United States by the first Director of the Coast Survey, F.R. Hassler, in 1834. He resided in Washington until his death, working intermittently for the Survey (1834-1836, 1848, 1870-1874) and as an independent instrument maker.  He made some of the early instruments of the survey, including this one, apparently made while he was in private business.  The needle (missing) was about 9 in/23 cm long. The instrument was used in Washington in 1863 and subsequently at many other locations, including points on the west coast from Sitka to San Diego in 1881.”

United States Standards of Weights and Measures

Wurdemann, William, 15

Physical Sciences Collection – Surveying and Geodesy

This unusual instrument is probably best described as a precise level with a graduated horizontal circle

This unusual instrument is probably best described as a precise level with a graduated horizontal circle


Catalogue number:

“Wm. Würdemann, Washington, D.C. 565”

height 8.5 inches; horizontal circle 5.5 inches diameter; needle 4.25 inches; telescope 11.25 inches long; level 5.5 long


This unusual instrument is probably best described as a precise level with a graduated horizontal circle. The telescope is provided with a long and graduated level vial, and an ingenious clamp and tangent screw moving against the silvered vertical arc controls its elevation. This arc extends 20 degrees either way, and is graduated to 10 minutes and read by vernier to 20 seconds. The horizontal circle is silvered, graduated to 15 minutes, and read by opposite verniers with reflecting glasses and magnifiers to 30 seconds. A trough compass and a circular level are mounted above the horizontal circle.

The United States War Department transferred this instrument to the Smithsonian in 1931, in a pine box marked “Capt. M. C. Meigs, Washington Aqueduct -Wurdemann–Grading Transit–1854.” That is, it was used by Montgomery C. Meigs, the captain in the United States Army Corps of Engineers who was tasked with surveying the course of a new Washington Aqueduct in 1853. Since William Würdemann was the leading mathematical instrument maker in Washington at that time, it is reasonable that he was asked to make the instrument needed for this important task.

The same device is also found in another part of the Smithsonian Institute site in a section called “History Wired – A Few of our Favorite Things”




Used to survey the course of the Washington Aqueduct
German-born instrument-maker William Würdemann arrived in Washington, DC, in 1834 and became the first full-time instrument maker of the U.S. Coast Survey. Over the course of his long career, Würdemann had an important influence on his new country, introducing “extreme German methods and models among us, where extreme English methods had previously prevailed.” He made instruments for other government agencies as well. This Würdemann gradienter–which combines the features of a theodolite and a precise level–was used by Captain Montgomery Meigs of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to survey the course of the Washington Aqueduct in 1854.

Theodolite  Catalogue number: PH*316530  Inscriptions: "Wm. Würdemann, Washington, D.C. No 163"

Catalogue number:
“Wm. Würdemann, Washington, D.C. No 163”


Catalogue number:

“Wm. Würdemann, Washington, D.C. No 163”

height 13 inches; horizontal circle 6 inches diameter; vertical circle 2.5 inches diameter; needle 4 inches; telescope 11 inches long

William Würdemann made this instrument during the period 1849-1881, and the U.S. Coast & Geodetic Survey transferred it to the Smithsonian in 1959. The horizontal circle is silvered, graduated to single minutes, and read by opposite verniers with magnifiers to single seconds. The vertical circle is silvered, and read by single vernier and magnifier.

William was important enough to the Smithsonian that they had one of it’s famous architects build a home for him.

Adolf Cluss:

from Germany to America

Shaping a Capital City Worthy of a Republic

William Wurdemann Residence
200½ Delaware Ave & B Street, NE (square 685, lots 1 & 2)
1887 demolished

Link from the Adolf Cluss site
William Wuerdemann Residence (53)
200 1/2 Delaware Avenue and B Street, NE
Constructed in 1887, demolished ca. 1910

From 1836 to 1849, the German immigrant William Wuerdemann (1811-1900) was the Chief Mechanician of the U.S. Coast Survey, Cluss’s first employer in Washington. In 1849, Wuerdemann started his own business as a Mathematical and Optical Instrument Manufacturer, but stayed in close contact with the Coast Survey. More about Wuerdemann: see http://americanhistory.si.edu.

When Wuerdemann asked Cluss to design this row house located just northwest of the Capitol, he was already in his seventies and retired. Two years later, Wuerdemann built two more houses at 10-12 B Street. All three houses were around the corner from Wuerdemann’s own house at 204 Delaware Avenue NE. Other members of the family owned nearby houses at 200 and 206-210 Delaware Avenue. Wuerdemann also owned a house in Dresden and a schooner. All of Wuerdemann’s Washington houses were demolished around 1910 to make way for park land and a Senate office building.


Theodolites = P.C., Hagley Museum, Del.; Meridian Telescopes = West Point Museum, Bureau of Land Management, Dept. of the Interior; Transits = Cornell University, ADL-L31; Sextant = MYS.

Würdemann; studied in Heidelberg; came to the U.S.A in 1834 and worked for the U.S. Coast Survey; on his own from 1840; made many improvements to instruments; made his own dividing engine.

Bremen (1811-34); Washington, D.C. (1834-1900).

Smart 1; Bedini 8; USNM; ADL; D.J. Warner 10; RSW.


In the catalogue issued in 1883 by Fauth and Company, makers of surveying instruments in Washington, D.C., two different types of heliotropes were offered. One was a heliotrope produced by the instrument maker William Wurdemann which had a telescope with two sights and two signal mirrors. It was offered with or without graduated horizontal and vertical axes. In the same catalogue Fauth introduced a “Pocket Heliotrope . . . a beautiful instrument that requires no adjustment” that had been introduced in 1844 by Carl August Steinheil (1801-1870), a Swiss physicist best known for his inventions ranging from an electric clock, telegraphic device and optical instruments. This instrument was sold also by the Washington-based instrument maker and dealer George N. Sagemuller for $20, and examples of which were purchased by the U. S. Coast and Geological Survey.




Camill Fauth (1847-1925) was born and raised in Karlsruhe, in southwest Germany. William Würdemann encouraged him to move to Washington, D.C., in 1870, and to work in his shop. Fauth and his two brothers-in-law, George N. Saegmuller and Henry Lockwood, established their own instrument business on Capitol Hill in 1874, and began trading as Fauth & Co. They made surveying and geodetic instruments for federal agencies, colleges and universities, and state, local, and private surveys, as well as transit instruments and telescope mounts for astronomical observatories. Fauth & Co. won an award at the Centennial Exhibition of 1876, and a gold medal at the Cincinnati Industrial Exposition of 1882. In 1887, when Fauth retired and returned to Germany, Saegmuller became manager and sole proprietor of the firm, and began putting serial numbers on Fauth instruments. Saegmuller began trading under his own name in 1892, but kept the Fauth name on the instruments until he moved to Rochester, N.Y., in 1905.


Ferrel Tide Predictor



Grading transit Date: 1854

Grading transit Date: 1854

 Montgomery Cunningham Meigs


Grading transit
Date: 1854

Capt. Montgomery C. Meigs used this grading transit, a surveying instrument, in his work on the Washington Aqueduct in the mid-1850s. It was made for him in 1854 by a prominent Washington instrument maker, William Wurdemann.

1 comment to Wilhelm (William) C. F. Würdemann, Surveyor and Mathematical Instrument Maker

  • Wurdeman


    by Mary M. Root

    When George Nicholas Saegmuller came to America in 1870, he couldn’t have picked a better time. His skills were greatly needed in an era of southern reconstruction and western expansion. An adventurous young man of 23, he already had an impressive resumé: German schooling, fluency in three languages, and an admirable stint working for Thomas Cook & Son Company in England. He even served as their representative to the Paris Exposition. Just prior to the Franco-Prussian War, he immigrated to America.

    Saegmuller arrived in Washington, D.C. and was soon working for William Wurdemann, manufacturer of astronomical and geodetic instruments. It was probably with Wurdemann’s help that he secured a position with the U.S. Coast & Geodetic Survey in charge of precision instruments. He was lucky in his choice of boarding houses. At Mrs. Vandenberg’s select establishment, he met wonderful people who were to become lifelong friends: Rudolph Reichmann, Henry Alexander Lockwood, and Maria Jane Vanderberg. Maria and her sisters were known for their beauty and intelligence, and their scientific community evidently agreed – Saegmuller married Maria, Lockwood married her sister Charlotte, and Reichmann married her sister Evaline.

    waterwheel.JPG (132442 bytes)Evaline and Rudolph moved to New York (he was a “scientist of Bausch & Lomb Optical Company”). The Lockwoods and Saegmullers remained in Arlington County, Virginia. Henry and Charlotte lived at “Easter Spring Farm”, one hillside away from the Vandenberg’s “Reserve Hill” farm, occupied by George and Maria. Henry and George worked on many projects together. They built and maintained some of the early roads at their own expense, designed the water-wheel that pumped water to the Saegmuller home, and installed the first private phone line in the county between their own residences. They were also business partners with Camill Fauth, and using his name, “supplied scientific equipment for observatories and various departments of the government”.

    The original house on Reserve Hill burned in 1892. “Mr. Saegmuller decided to rebuild on the same site a house reminiscent of his native Nürnberg. The new house, completed in 1904, was constructed of fine bluestone quarried on the estate. Tall white columns at the front show a Southern influence combined with that of a German castle. The house has twenty-two rooms plus baths. Just back of the house was built a stone watertower, which is an exact replica of a gatetower of the Nürnberg Castle wall. This was copied in minutest detail from a tankard replica of the tower which Saegmuller brought from Germany.” This unique house has survived and is the Arlington headquarters of the Knights of Columbus.

    As if he wasn’t busy enough, Mr. Saegmuller also served his county as Chairman of the Board of Supervisors, and “was influential in the choice of the Court House site. He advanced money to meet county expenses during that period, and personally supervised construction of the new building.” His belief in education led him to advance money for a new school building. The Saegmuller Public School was in use from 1890 until 1937 when it was replaced by a larger structure.

    Locally he was known as “Mr. Saegmuller, the inventor”. But his neighbors probably had no idea just how many scientific instruments he created, or assisted in creating, or how many patents he held. His most famous contribution to the surveying community was the Saegmuller Solar Attachmentv, but he also constructed the first model of W.M. Beaman’s Stadia Arc in June 1904. He compiled his own mathematical data and was often at the naval observatory. Surveyors of that era could send 10 cents to “G.N. Saegmuller, Washington, D.C.” and receive “The Pocket Solar Ephemeris and Refraction Tables for Use with Saegmuller’s Solar Attachment”. In 1905 he combined with Bausch & Lomb Optical Company and shortly after that the Carl Zeiss Company of Germany joined them both. Bausch & Lomb continued to publish Saegmuller’s solar ephemeris, and their 1915 “Metro Manual” states in its preface: “To extend the boundaries of popular knowledge on this subject, to provide a ready reference in relation to instruments of our own manufacture and to give our customers the best there is in value and treatment without their insistence, is the excuse and necessity for the publication of this, the ninth, enlarged and revised edition of the Saegmuller Vest Pocket Handbook.” Fittingly, the emblem on the manual’s cover represents a prism, and each third bears the initial(s) of the founding companies.

    Saegmuller also held patents for military instruments, his best known probably the bore sight, but “with the assistance of Admiral Sampson during WWI, he invented the modern telescope sights for the Navy and the range-finder”. His scientific and inventive abilities benefited our military for decades.

    George Nicholas Saegmuller, the inventor, public leader, educator, philanthropist, and family man, died in his beloved Arlington, Virginia on February 12, 1934.

    Quoted material from Arlington Heritage – Vignettes of a Virginia County, written and published by Eleanor Lee Templeman, 1959.

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