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Otto H. Schmitt

"He didn’t create Microsoft, the Mac or Google, but Otto H. Schmitt (1913-1998) invented something those companies couldn’t exist without: the Schmitt Trigger, an electronic circuit that converted analog signals to digital (“a thermionic trigger that allows a constant electronic signal to be changed to an on/off state, or ‘1’ to ‘0’”).  It’s used today in the input mechanism of virtually every computer, as well as other electronic devices.  He developed the trigger by studying the nerves in squid and trying to engineer a device that replicated the natural system by which squid nerves propagate.  That early emphasis on the biological/engineering interface would expand and deepen through Schmitt’s career as Professor of Biophysics, Bioengineering, and Electrical Engineering at the University of Minnesota.

Born in St. Louis and recipient of BA (1934) and PhD (1937) degrees from Washington University, Schmitt was hired by Minnesota in 1939, where he founded the University’s Biophysics Program.  With the exception of the World War II years when he did secret research for the U. S., Otto Schmitt remained on the University’s faculty until he retired in 1983.  He and his wife Viola lived at 1912 Como Ave. SE to the late 1990s.

Schmitt worked on radar systems during the war, and devised a mechanism that detected the presence of German submarines by measuring the effects a moving steel boat had on the earth’s magnetic fields.  An airplane trailed a cable towing his device in the air over the target area.

As a bioengineer, Schmitt focused on creating devices that mimicked natural systems, and he coined the word “biomimetic” to describe them.  He found ways to improve the accuracy of electrocardiographic tests and invented other biomedical electronics.  After Sputnik, Schmitt worked on bioastronautics and aerospace instrumentation. In the 1970s the U. S. Navy asked him to analyze effects of its huge radar grid of Extremely Low Frequency magnetic fields across northern Wisconsin (the controversial ELF program).

A founder of the Biophysical Society in 1956 and owner of sixty patents, Schmitt was named to the Minnesota Inventors Hall of Fame (1978) and to the prestigious National Academy of Engineering (1979).  Some of his inventions can be seen in Minneapolis’s Bakken Museum.

Otto Schmitt was eccentric.  His house and office were crammed with his research projects.  Knowing that all systems will fail at some point and believing in non-replicative redundancy in systems, he wore two watches and carried another in his pocket so at least one of them had the right time; that also explains the six or eight different types of pens always in his shirt’s pocket protector.  And, because of his research on subtle but measurable electric impulses in the human heart, nerves, brain—the kind now seen at work in mind-controlled electronic prosthetic arms and hands—Schmitt was convinced that the mind could make objects move (telekinesis) and receive signals from other minds (telepathy).  He was trying to figure out how that worked to the end of his days."

Como People of the Past article
By Connie Sullivan

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