Person:GAUSS, Carl Friedrich (1777 - 1855)

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GAUSS, Carl Friedrich (1777 - 1855)
Family(s): Gauss
Person ID (Link to genealogy): GED link doc.gif I21
Descendant of C. F. Gauss
Sex: M
Date born: 30 Apr 1777
Born in: Brunswick, Hanover
Date died: 23 Feb 1855
Died in: Goettingen, Germany
Father: GAUSS, Gebhard Dietrich (1744 - 1808)
Mother: BENZE, Dorthea (1743 - 1839)
Spouse(s): OSTHOFF, Johanna Elizabeth Rosina (1780 - 1809)
, WALDECK, Friederica Wilhelmine (1788 - 1831)

Fawcett book: GAUSS, Carl Friedrich (1777 - 1855)
Other attributes


Writing a biographical note on Carl Friedrich Gauss is a daunting proposition. He was a gifted genius and made many contributions to mathematics, physics, astronomy, surveying and other scientific fields. He was also a gifted linguist, mastering a number of languages. All of his scientific work was written in Latin as was the custom in his day. In addition, he was fluent in French, and learned Russian at a relatively advanced age.

From Bill Fawcett's book:

JOHANN FRIEDRICH KARL GAUSS was born to Gebhard Dietrich Gauss (1744 - ) and his second wife, Dorothea Benze (1743 - ), on April 20, 1777 in the house at Wendengraben/ Wilhelmstrasse 30. He was their only child. A few years later they moved after he almost drowned in a nearby canal at age 3-4. At various times Gebhard worked as a mason, canal worker, gardener, street butcher, and accountant for a funeral society. He was prevented from obtaining better employment by the medieval guilds (Zunfte) which controlled the trades and town life. Gebhard owned the home at Wilhelmstrasse 30 in Braunschweig, purchased from his father, Jurgen Goos, in 1753. Only by owning a house did one become a full fledged citizen of the city. Jurgen Goos was a small farmer who moved to Braunschweig, the capital of the Duchy of Braunschweig/Brunswick-Wolfenbuttel (later in West Germany), in 1739/40. Karl's maternal grandfather, Kristoffer Benze, was a stone mason in Velpke, 50 km from Braunschweig. He died from sandstone dust in his lungs at age 30. Dorothea's younger brother, Johann Friedrich Benze taught himself to be a dansk weaver. Because Gebhard wrote and calculated well he was entrusted with the treasury for the local burial fund. Gebhard was well regarded and honest, but in the home was tyrannical, course and violent. Gebhard's first wive died in 1775, leaving a son George Gauss, who followed his father into masonry. In 1776 Gebhard married Dorothea Benze (born 1743; moved to Brunswick in 1769). Dorothea never learned to write and could scarcely read. She worked as a servant for several years in her birth place, Velpke, in the Ritter household; before her unhappy marriage to Gebhard. At age 3 Karl accompanied his father on Saturdays when he paid the stone masons he supervised. At that young age he is known to have corrected his fathers calculations of wages. He knew how to read before he entered school. In 1784 at age 7 Karl enrolled in St. Catherine School, taught by J.G. Buttner in a large classroom where caning was common. At age 10 he rapidly solved the problem of summing all the whole numbers from 1 to 100, and Buttner gave him a better math book from Hamburg to study in 1786. The 18 year old Martin Bartels (1769-1836), then assistant teacher and later a math professor at the University of Kazan, spent many evenings with Karl working on math problems. By then Gebhard released Karl from spinning a certain quantity of flax each evening--something that his step-brother George continued. Karl was 5'2" tall, and stocky with blond hair, dark blue eyes, and a prominent nose.

In 1788 Karl Gauss enrolled against his father's will in the Catharineum Gymnasium in Braunichweig, where Prof. Hellwig taught math, assisted by Bartels. The philogist Meyerhoff taught Karl Greek and Latin. He also learned High German, besides the local dialects he had spoken until then. Prof. von Zimmermann of the Collegium Carolinum introduced Karl to the Duke Carl Wilhelm Ferdinand of Braunschwieg, who became his patron in 1791, with a stipend of 10 talers. Karl attended Collegium Carolinum (1792-95). In 1794 he discovered least squares. On Oct 15, 1795 Karl Gauss was admitted to Georgia Augusta (University of Gottingen), 65 miles south of Brunswich and in the state of Hanover, as a math student, supported by a yearly stipend from the Duke in cash and in-kind. There he was influenced by profs. Lichtenberg (physics), W. Kastner (math), Seyffer (astronomer), and Heyne (linguist). He learned English and Swedish. Karl Gauss published his first work (on regular 17-sided polygons) in 1796, and conducted research on the distribution of prime numbers.

In the fall of 1798 Gauss left the university without a diploma and returned to Brunswick, where he lived until 1807. Karl Gauss studied occasionally with Prof. Johann Friedrich Pfaff (1765-1825) at Helmstadt. Pfaff was then Germany's foremost mathematician, and supervised Gauss' dissertation, completed in 1799. In early Jan 1799 Gauss' stipend was increased by the Duke to 158 talers per annum. Gauss' PhD was awarded on July 16, 1799 in absentia without oral examination. His dissertation was published with financing from the Duke in Aug. 1799. Karl Gauss' magnum opus (Disquistiori Arthemeticae) was published in Leipeig in 1801. The same year he gained wide acclaim for most accurately predicting the orbit of Ceres from very limited data. In June 1802 Gauss visited his fellow astronomer Dr. Olbers (1759-1840) in Bremen. Karl Gauss's motto became pauca sed matura--few but ripe. In 1804 Karl Gauss entered a correspondence with M. LeBlanc of Paris, who fully understood his works on math, though she turned out to really be a woman named Sophie Germain.

In 1803 he met Johanna Osthoff (1780- ), only child of a tanner in Braunschweig. They were engaged at the end of 1804, and married on Oct 9, 1805. Her family was friend's of his mother. Karl and Johanna Gauss continued to live in Braunschweig in Gauss' bachelor house at Steinweg 22, across from the Duke's palace. He thought his wife was intelligent, sweet, but also inexperienced and not well educated. In May of 1806 he visited the Duke for the last time. On Aug 21, 1806, Joseph Gauss--named after Piazzi, the discover of Ceres--was born to Karl and Johanna. On Oct. 14, 1806 the 71-year old Duke was shot by a musket through both eyes while leading Prussian and Saxon troops at the Battle of Auerstadt. With the advance of the French Army into Braunschweig the Duke fled at the end of October towards Altona, where he died on Nov. 10, 1806. On July 25, 1807 he was appointed director of the new astronomical observatory in Gottingen. His application was supported by Alexander Von Humboldt (1769-1859) of Prussia (Berlin) and the astronomer Olbers. Karl moved there in Nov. 1807, after visiting Olbers in Bremen again during the summer. Under French domination, Gottingen became part of the new Kingdom of Westphalia (later Hanover) in 1806, and Karl was unable to pay a war tax of 2000 francs without the assistance of an anonymous donor (Count Dahlberg, the Lord Bishop of Frankfort) and the French mathematician LaPlace.

Karl became his mother's main interest after the death of Gebhard (in Braunschweig in 1808) during the 22 years she spent at the observatory in Gottingen, until her death at age 97 in 1839. On Feb 29, 1808 Wilhelmina (Minchen or Minna) Gauss--named for the astronomer Olber--was born to Karl and Johanna Gauss. Their third and last child, Ludwig (Louis) Gauss--named for the astronomer Ludwig--was born on Nov. 10, 1809. This and the second child's birth caused Johanna's health to decline. Johanna died on Oct. 11, 1809, and Louis, suddenly on Mar 1, 1810. Karl detested violence in all forms, but throughout his later life was hostile towards the French. In 1810 he won a medal from the Institut de France, including an astronomical clock purchased for him by Sophie Germain.

On March 27, 1810, Karl Gauss proposed to his wife's close friend, Friderica Wilhelmine "Minna" Waldeck (born 1788 to Johann Peter Waldeck, a wealthy law professor at Gottingen University. She had just ended another engagement. Following a brief estrangement, they were married on Aug. 4, 1810. Minna cared for her step-children like her own: Eugene Gauss (born July 29, 1811 in Gottingen), Wilhelm (born Oct 23, 1813), and Therese (born June 9, 1816). Minna also suffered poor health, which she treated at the spas at Pyrmont and Ems. Much of her illness may have been psychological. Karl observed the great comet in Aug 1811. The exterior of the new observatory was completed in 1814, and the residence in 1815. Gauss lived in the west wind and C.L. Harding, the discoverer of Juno and his assistant, in the east. New instruments ordered from G. von Reichenbach of Munich in 1812 did not arrive until 1821. During the 1820s Karl Gauss' research focused on mapping and inventing the helioscope. In January 1830 his son, Eugene, left for America. On Sept 12, 1831 Karl's second wife, Minna, died of pulmonary consumption. In 1833 Karl Gauss invented the telegraph. In 1838 Karl Gauss became temporarily deaf. While politically conservative and disapproving of the Feb 1848 revolution, he did speak out in opposition to the firing of seven of his colleagues by the King (Grimm Brothers went to Berlin, Wilhelm Weber returned to Leipzig in Saxony, Heinrich Ewald--his brother-in-law professor of oriental languages and theology went to Tubingen after doing research in London for several years, and the law professor Albrect went to Konigsberg).

In 1849 the University of Gottingen celebrated the 50th anniversary of Gauss' doctorate--his golden jubilee. Karl Gauss was fluent in most European languages (including Russian and Sanskrit), and especially in English, in which he read Shakespeare and Sir Walter Scott. From 1841 through 1851 he completed an analysis of the University's pension fund. Through spartan living and investment in bonds, he amassed his 1000 thaler/year salary into a 153,000 thaler legacy upon his death. Another 18,000 thalers were found stashed among his personal papers.

During the winters of 1852-53 he was ill. In Jan 1854 he was diagnosed with an enlarged heart by Wilhelm Baun, professor of surgery. He suffered dropsy and could barely walk with his swollen feet. Karl Gauss attended the opening of the railway between Gottingen and Hanover, which Joseph Gauss had engineered. His will was written in Dec. 1854. After suffering several heart attacks (Dec 7), Karl Gauss died in his sleep early on the morning of Feb 23, 1855, at age 77. He was buried on Feb 26, 1855 following a large academic ceremony in St. Albans Cemetery, Gottingen. His eulogy was delivered by his son-in-law Ewald. Karl Gauss' brain was added to the anatomy collection of the University of Gottingen.

His 150 publications and other papers were reprinted in 12 volumes published by the Gottingen Royal Scientific Society (1863-1933). The birthplace home (30 Wilhelmstrasse, Braunschweig) later became a museum, but was destroyed by bombing during WW II (Hall 1970). A monument in Karl Gauss' honor stands in a park in Brunswick, Germany. Karl Gauss' diary (1796-1814) was not discovered until 1898. He corresponded with the Hungarian mathematician, Wolfgang Bolyei (1775-1856) from 1797 to 1853. Many of Karl's papers are preserved in the Lick Observatory in California (Stephens 1921:768, 936; Cox n.d.:185).


From A History of the Fawcetts and Related Families in America by William Bloys Fawcett. Used by permission of Dr. Fawcett.

This book was first published in 1996 and some of the information is quite dated. If you find errors or want to add updates, contact me, and I will add notes to the page.

Copyright © 1996, 2007 by William Bloys Fawcett, Jr. All rights reserved. No copies may be made of this document through any electronic, photocopying or other means without permission of the author.


External References

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About young Gauss doing addition.

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