Instructions for Amsler's Polar Planimeter

In 1854 Jacob Amsler, a Swiss teacher and mathematician, devised a planimeter that did not need the cones or wheel-and-disc constructions of earlier instruments such as 1983.0474.02 and 1986.0633.01. His smaller and simpler device also used polar coordinates rather than the Cartesian coordinate system. Amsler established a workshop to produce polar planimeters, and he built a network of agents in Europe and the United States to distribute the instrument. Over 50,000 polar planimeters of at least six different types were sold by the time Amsler died in 1912, and the firm continued under his son's name (Alfred J. Amsler & Co.) until at least 1960.
This three-page leaflet was printed for one of Amsler's agents, Amsler & Wirz. Charles T. Amsler, a Swiss immigrant, and possibly a relative of Jacob Amsler, began to sell European instruments in Philadelphia in 1848 and briefly partnered with A. H. Wirz from 1855 to 1857. In 1861 C. T. Amsler sold his business to William Y. McAllister and returned to Switzerland.
The leaflet shows a Type 3 Amsler polar planimeter and explains how to use the instrument. Amsler & Wirz sold it for $20.00, filled orders within six weeks, and recommended the planimeter to draftsmen, engineers, surveyors, ship builders, architects, and machinists. The year 1856 is written in pencil at the top of the first page, and the top left corner is embossed with the words "Turkey Mill" and a ship, presumably referring to the English paper manufacturer. The leaflet was found in the Museum before 1984.
References: Peggy Aldrich Kidwell, "Planimeter," in Instruments of Science: An Historical Encyclopedia, ed. Robert Bud and Deborah Jean Warner (London: Garland Publishing, 1998), 467–469; Michael S. Mahoney, "Amsler (later Amsler-Laffon), Jakob," in Dictionary of Scientific Biography, ed. Charles Coulston Gillispie (New York: Scribner, 1970), i:147–148; C. T. Amsler's Illustrated Catalogue of Optical, Mathematical, and Philsophical Instruments (Philadelphia, 1855); C. T. Amsler and A. H. Wirz, advertisement, Ohio Journal of Education 4, no. 12 (December 1855): 411; C. T. Amsler, advertisement, Scientific American 13, no. 1 (September 12, 1857): 7; William Y. McAllister, A Priced and Illustrated Catalogue of Mathematical Instruments (Philadelphia, 1867), 9–11.
Currently not on view
Object Name
date made
Amsler and Wirz
Physical Description
paper (overall material)
overall: 21 cm x 27 cm; 8 9/32 in x 10 5/8 in
place made
United States: Pennsylvania, Philadelphia
ID Number
accession number
catalog number
Science & Mathematics
Drafting, Engineering
See more items in
Medicine and Science: Mathematics
Data Source
National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center
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