Hans Caspar Escher (1775–1859)

The Swiss industrialist and architect Hans Caspar Escher was a key figure in the development of textile manufacturing and machine-making in Switzerland.

Escher was born in Zurich, where he learned about the textile trade from his father, who was a silk merchant. When he was 18 he was apprenticed to a silk merchant at Livorno in Tuscany. However, he became more interested in architecture there and he moved to Rome to train for three years as an architect before moving back to Switzerland to practice. When he saw the country’s first powered cotton spinning machines, erected in 1800 in the monastery at St Gallen, he became fascinated. He studied examples of machinery at Chemnitz in Saxony and designed spinning machines of his own. In 1805 he began a cotton-spinning company with the banker Salomon von Wyss, his father and others. Over the next few years Escher examined machinery in France and England. In Zurich in 1810 he began Escher, Wyss & Cie, the first Swiss foundry for the manufacture of textile machinery. It became the leading supplier of equipment for the early growth of the cotton industry in the region.

During the next 25 years the company diversified into other branches of mechanical engineering, including waterwheels, turbines, steam engines, steam boilers, papermill machines, locomotives and steamships. It opened additional machine foundries at Leesdorf in Austria and Ravensburg in Württemberg. It also opened more factories for cotton, flax and paper manufacture and created the Zurich steamship company. By the 1830s, the company employed 1,200 people. It had pioneering schemes for education, housing, health care and help for the elderly and disabled.

Escher continued as an architect, designing classical buildings in Zurich and elsewhere. His son Albert was expected to take forward the family’s industrial interests but he died in 1845. Escher, Wyss & Cie continued until 1969, when it became part of the Sulzer group.