Alfred Escher (1819–82)

By combing a political career with business, Alfred Escher had a formative influence on the economic development of his homeland, Switzerland.

He was born in 1819 into the Escher vom Glas dynasty. He studied law at the University of Zürich then spent two semesters in Berlin and Bonn before completing a doctorate in law at Zürich. He was appointed as a lecturer in political science and then at the age of 25 was elected to the cantonal parliament of Zürich. With the creation of the first national parliament for Switzerland in 1848, Escher was elected to the National Council. He kept his seat until his death 34 years later. He held the top position in Switzerland of National Council President four times.

The claim that he was a founder of modern Switzerland is due to his roles in pioneering railways, financial institutions and the Swiss Institute of Technology. In 1848 Escher saw Switzerland was at risk of being by-passed by railways. He aimed to bring together government and business with a common aim. Four years later he helped to make a law that assisted the private sector to build railways. Escher himself headed the Swiss North-eastern Railway from 1852 and the Gotthard Railway from 1871. In 1854 he had a key role in founding the Institute of Technology – now known as ETH Zürich – to train people in the skills necessary for railway building and industrial development. The north-south link across the Alps through the 15-kilometre Gotthard tunnel was a major achievement – when it opened in 1881 it was the longest tunnel in the world.

Escher was concerned that capital was not sufficient in Switzerland to finance railway construction and other projects. As a result he was instrumental in establishing in 1856 the new bank Schweizerische Kreditanstalt (now Credit Suisse), which was critical to establishing Zürich as a global centre of finance. He was also closely involved in the creation in 1857 of the insurance company Schweizerische Rentenanstalt (Swiss Life).

His statue stands in front of the Zürich Hauptbahnhof. The Alfred Escher Stiftung maintains his archive.