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Otto Herbert Schmitt papers

Identifier: ua-01081

Scope and Content

The papers document all aspects of the life and work of Otto H. Schmitt, biophysicist at the University of Minnesota. He was a compulsive collector and documenter of his activities. The original 1650 feet of papers was whittled down by disposing of material not related to Schmitt, large amounts of duplicate articles and publications, undocumented audio visual materials, as well as unused calendars and notebooks. Sampling was done on large repetitive sections, such as "to-do" lists Schmitt created for many personal and professional activities, and undocumented photographs and slides.

Correspondence, via post or telegraph, constitutes a large portion of the collection. Isolated bits of correspondence between Otto Schmitt and his contemporaries make up the majority of the letters found in the collection. Much of the correspondence has been preserved in its original order; therefore, there are several boxes of correspondence which are arranged by last name, yielding folder titles such as “Miscellaneous A”, “Miscellaneous B”, etc. (Boxes 3, 6, 10-12). Dates are also repeated across boxes, as are subjects and correspondents. Some correspondents, such as Otto Schmitt's brother Francis are represented in both the Professional and Official Correspondence and Personal Papers series, since Otto Schmitt corresponded with his brother both professionally and personally. Correspondence regarding Schmitt's publications can also be found in the Writings series

Research materials make up the largest component of the collection. Included are research grant applications and subsequent notices of grant approvals, charts and graphs depicting data obtained from experiments, schematics from inventions, patents for inventions, and various reports. Also included are oversize charts containing research data. As with the correspondence, dates are spread across boxes. Sections of Schmitt's research notes and data are restricted.

The Audio/Visual materials in the collection include reel to reel audiotapes, vacation and conference photographs, cassette tapes, and slides. Schmitt had a great interest in photography, specifically Polaroids. Included in the collection is the Rogue’s Gallery, a collection of Polaroid photos taken by Otto Schmitt of the hundreds of students, colleagues, and other people who visited his office during his years as a University of Minnesota professor (Boxes 62-63). Many of the photographs are noted with the subject's name and date taken. A guest book of visitors to Schmitt's office which coincides with the Rogue's Gallery has also been retained, as has his beloved Polaroid camera, "The Squeaker" (Box 64).

Viola Elise Schmitt, Otto Schmitt's wife, also figures into the collection. She was a highly educated person in her own right, holding degrees in Mathematics and Latin from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. During WWII she worked on the Manhattan Project as one of the few women mathematicians and served as Schmitt's research assistant for his entire career. She wrote Schmitt numerous letters while he was away at conferences and meetings and sometimes wrote letters to Schmitt's colleagues when he was unable to keep up with his professional correspondence (Box 3, folder 86).

Rounding out the collection are published and unpublished writings, which provide examples of Schmitt’s work and as his contributions to his particular scientific field; a small group of teaching materials, which range from exams, notes, quizzes and overhead transparencies, give examples of Schmitt's pedagogical practices. Personal correspondence with family and friends document Schmitt's family ties; various notebooks and lists show Schmitt's personal interests.


  • 1901-1998


Language of Materials

Collection material in English and French

Use of Materials

Items in this collection do not circulate and may be used in-house only.

Parts of the research materials are restricted. Interested researchers should contact University Archives staff for further information.


Researchers may quote from the collection under the fair use provision of the copyright law (Title 17, U.S. Code). Requests to publish should be arranged with the University of Minnesota Archives.

Biographical Sketch of Otto H. Schmitt (1913-1998)

Otto Herbert Arnold Schmitt, B.A. (1934), Ph.D. in physics, mathematics and zoology (1937), Washington University (St. Louis, MO). National research fellow (1937-1938) and Halley Steward research fellow (1938-1939), University College (London, England). Joined University of Minnesota faculty as instructor in zoology in 1939. Promoted to associate professor in 1941 and full professor in 1949. Best known for his invention of the Schmitt trigger (1938); research in the areas of magnetic fields, biophysics, bioengineering, physiology, and medicine; creation of the new discipline of biomimetics; held over 60 patents and published more than 200 articles.

Otto Schmitt was born in St. Louis, Missouri on 6 August 1913 to Otto Franz Johannes Schmitt and Clara Senniger Schmitt. Schmitt began experimenting in various scientific fields as a young child, aided in his efforts by his older brother Francis O. Schmitt and weekly tutoring sessions with Jacob Siler, a close family friend.

Schmitt left high school early and enrolled at Washington University in St. Louis, where his brother Frank was now an associate professor. During his undergraduate tenure, Schmitt published eight scholarly articles, many co-authored by Frank; his first article was published in Sciencemagazine entitled, "A vacuum tube method of temperature control" (March 1931). In 1934 Schmitt earned his B.A. degree and was also awarded his first patent entitled, "Electrical System." Schmitt remained at Washington University to complete his Ph.D. in physics, zoology and mathematics (1937).

On 1 August 1937, Schmitt married Viola Elise Muench. The two met while both were enrolled at Washington University. Viola earned a B.A. in Latin in 1934 and an M.A. in mathematics in 1935. After their marriage, she served as Schmitt's unpaid assistant and secretary for his entire academic career.

After completing his Ph.D. in 1937, Schmitt spent the summer working at Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory on the coast of Cape Code with his brother Frank, testing out Otto's newly invented electrical equipment that measured and recorded biological impulses on the nerve axioms of squid. Beginning in fall of 1937, Schmitt and Viola moved to London, England, where Schmitt spent two years in post doctoral study at University College. As a National Research Council fellow (1937-1938), Schmitt worked alongside Nobel Prize winner Professor A.V. Hill conducting research on nerve and muscle impulses. He was able to continue his studies for another year with funding by the Sir Halley Stewart Trust fellowship (1938-1939). While at University College, Schmitt would publish an article on his idea regarding circuitry that self-adjusted, which he developed during his Ph.D. work. This article entitled, "A Thermionic Trigger" was published in the British Journal of Scientific Instrumentsin January 1938. This device was later known as the Schmitt trigger and is still used in many electrical instruments, including computers.

In 1939, Schmitt accepted a position as lecturer in zoology at the University of Minnesota. In 1940, he was offered a position at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where his brother Frank held the position of professor, but Schmitt decided to stay at Minnesota. He was promoted to the rank of associate professor in 1941 and full professor in 1949 with appointments in the departments of zoology, physics and electrical engineering.

In 1940, Schmitt was commissioned to work for the National Defense Research Committee, later renamed the Office of Scientific Research and Development. In 1942 he began his anti-submarine research, culminating in his invention of an instrument that could detect submarines from planes, based upon the disruption of the earth's electro-magnetic fields by the sub's hull. He also designed a flight simulator that was used to train pilots, as well as more efficient types of radio antennas for high-speed aircraft, and various techniques to jam enemy radio signals. During this time, Viola was employed as a mathematician on various war projects, including the Manhattan Project. Schmitt and Viola both continued to work for the Armed Forces after the end of World War II as scientific consultants and in anti-Soviet research, with Schmitt serving as a supervising engineer for the Airborne Instruments Laboratory (AIL).

Schmitt returned to the University of Minnesota in 1947. Originally inspired by his work with squid nerve cells during his years at Washington University and University College, London, Schmitt continued to conduct scientific research which mimicked the natural world, and applied his findings to the fields of electronics and physics. He became known as the founder of the field of biomimetics and was invited to countless international symposiums as both a speaker and panel participant.

While completing research and teaching courses at the University of Minnesota, Schmitt served as a consultant and frequent member of advisory groups. During the 1950s, he served as a consultant for the U.S. Public Health Services and acting member of the advisory panel of the Space Science Board of Biology and Psychology. From 1958-1961 he was the chairman of the executive council on Bioastronautics, Joint Armed Forces-National Academy of Science. From the 1960s-1980s he served as a consultant or fellow for a number of associations, including the U.S. Air Force and Navy; Minnesota Inventors Hall of Fame; Honeywell Biomimetic Sensors Program; McDonnell-Douglass Aircraft Company; New York Academy of Science; General Electric Company; and the National Institutes of Health.

Schmitt's interests were not limited to biophysics. He also had a strong interest in physiology and medicine, photography, and the paranormal. He was noted for his love of the Polaroid camera, and took a picture of everyone who visited his office, terming this collection of photographs the "Rogue's Gallery."

Schmitt’s awards include the Lovelace and Morlock Awards (1960 and 1963), the IEEE EMBS Lifetime Achievement award (1987), and the Medical Alley award (1988). He was also inducted into the Minnesota Inventor’s Hall of Fame (1978), and he helped establish the Schmitt Biomimetic Charitable Foundation, an organization which would award scholarships to young, promising scientific minds.

Long after he had retired, Schmitt continued to lecture as a professor emeritus and conduct research in his basement laboratory with Viola. Viola Schmitt died in 1994 and Otto H. Schmitt died on 6 January 1998, in Roseville, Minnesota.


74.55 Cubic Feet (73 boxes)


The collection contains the papers of Otto H. Schmitt, professor emeritus of physics and electrical engineering at the University of Minnesota. Materials include professional and personal correspondence, research materials, speeches and presentations, and published and unpublished articles. Schmitt was best known as the founder of the field of biomimetics and his invention of the "Schmitt Trigger" in 1938. He was also heavily involved in research in the field of physiology, held more than 60 patents and published over 200 articles during his academic tenure.


The papers are arranged into the following series:
  1. I. Professional and Official Correspondence
  2. II: Writings
  3. III: Patents, Inventions and Research
  4. IV: Conference Materials and Committees
  5. V: Meetings, Speeches and other Professional Activities
  6. VI. Personal Papers and other Miscellany
  7. VII. Teaching Materials and Course Information
  8. VIII: Audio/Visual Materials

Physical Location

This collection is stored off site and requires 3 days notice for retrieval.

Source of acquisition

The Otto H. Schmitt papers were donated to University Archives by the Schmitt Biomimetic Charitable Foundation in June 2002.

Processing Information

Originally, the Schmitt papers were in excess of 1650 feet. An initial processing grant given by the Schmitt Biomimetic Charitable Foundation allowed University Archives staff to reduced the collection to approximately 169 cubic feet. Final processing of the Schmitt papers was done by Lisa Lillie, funded by grants from the Schmitt Biomimetic Charitable Foundation and the Center for the History of Physics, American Institute of Physics.
Otto Herbert Schmitt papers, 1901-1998
Lisa Lillie
December 2007
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Code for undetermined script
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English

Collecting Area Details

Contact The University Archives Collecting Area