Otto Schmitt bigraphy, stories - American scientist

Otto Schmitt : biography

April 6, 1913 - January 6, 1998

Otto Herbert Schmitt (April 6, 1913 – January 6, 1998) was an American inventor, engineer, and biophysicist known for his scientific contributions to biophysics and for establishing the field of biomedical engineering. Schmitt also coined the term biomimetics and invented the Schmitt trigger, the cathode follower, the differential amplifier, and the chopper-stabilized amplifier., The Bakken Library and Museum.

He was awarded the John Price Wetherill Medal in 1972.


During the final semester of his graduate degree, Otto applied for a National Research Council Fellowship. This fellowship was able to fund a year of postdoctoral study at University College in London. Otto began his postdoctoral work in September of his graduation year. In the time between graduation and his new research position, Otto was able to spend several weeks in Cape Cod working at the Woods Hole marine Biological Laboratory. According to Harkness, “the brothers were eager to go there together to use Otto’s new electrical apparatus on the unusually large nerve axons of squid, which were abundantly available at the seaside research center.” [Harkness] This would be the last time that the brothers were able to collaborate on a research project together.

After his time at Woods Hole, Otto and his wife Viola moved to London to continue his research with nerve impulses under Professor A.V. Hill – Nobel Prize winner and founder of biophysics. It was during this time that Schmitt published a report on a novel bit of circuitry that would win him a lasting degree of fame. Otto originally named it the “thermionic trigger.” As a testament to the profound impact that Otto and his device had on electronics, it is still widely referred to as the “Schmitt trigger.” Schmitt spent two years in his postdoctoral position, even though his fellowship funding on lasted for one year; Professor Hill, recognizing Otto’s talents, sought out additional sources of funding to keep Otto in London for as long as he could. Schmitt’s next opportunity would bring him back the U.S.

Once again, Otto’s older brother Francis would play a vital role in Otto’s career. While Otto was working at his fellowship in England, Francis tried to use his connections at Washington University to get his brother a faculty position. Unfortunately, it was to no avail; however, Francis was able to convince faculty members at the nearby University of Minnesota to consider Otto for their new biophysics program. Otto received an official invitation to the University of Minnesota in February of 1939 with a dual appointment to the departments of Zoology and Physics. Otto and his wife narrowly missed the outbreak of World War II with their departure from England in August of the same year. Otto turned out to be less than satisfied with his new position, which was heavily focused on instruction rather than research. After revealing his dissatisfaction with his older brother, Francis would again play an important role in his younger brother’s advancement – this would be the final time that Francis would intervene for his younger brother. At the time, Francis was being offered a new position at MIT. As a stipulation, Francis wanted his brother Otto to be offered a tenure-track position as well. MIT obliged, and Otto was offered such a position. When word reached the University of Minnesota, they were quick to give Otto incentives to stay, including “…tenure as an associate professor (skipping the rank of assistant professor), a 28% pay raise, tripled research funding, and guaranteed support for two graduate students.” [Harkness] Otto decided to remain at the University of Minnesota.


Otto Herbert Schmitt was born on April 6, 1913 in St. Louis, Missouri, making him the third child of Otto Franz Johannes Schmitt and Clara Senninger Schmitt. At the time of Otto Jr.’s birth, Otto Sr. and Clara had an eleven year old daughter and a ten year old boy, Viola and Francis. The family lived in a large two story building that served as both a residence and as a business. Otto Sr. and Clara had formed Senninger & Schmitt Wallpaper & Painting Company with Clara’s father. After his death, they continued on with the business. Their business lives permeated their personal lives. In his memoirs, Otto’s older brother Francis recalls how, “Operating hours for the first-floor decorating business ran from 6:00 A.M. to 9:00 P.M.” [Schmitt] According to Harkness, “The Schmitt building…was full of energy and hard work during Otto’s youth.” [Harkness]

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