Former U prof and physics leader dies

Brian Close

Otto Schmitt left behind five storage areas filled with inventions and items from his research.
The former University physics and electrical engineering professor died last Tuesday at the age of 84.
He had degrees in zoology, physics and mathematics. Schmitt, an inductee into the Minnesota Inventors Hall of Fame, also had more than 60 patents in a variety of areas.
His most famous invention was the Schmitt trigger, an electrical switch he invented to model the behavior of a live neuron.
The trigger preempted his later formulation of biomimetics, the “mimicry” of nature in the development of technology.
In recent years, biomimetics has matured as a concept in a number of physical and life science fields.
Ellen Kuhfeld, curator of the Bakken Library and Museum, which has a Schmitt trigger on display, said the invention is “one of the fundamental devices for all modern computers.”
Schmitt also stood out for his curiosity and interest.
“The thing that made Otto light up was someone with a childlike, inquisitive nature,” said Kurt Vanden Branden, a friend and former research assistant to Schmitt.
“If you were interested in anything, he would talk to you,” said Tom Young, Schmitt’s great-nephew. “He could match your level of intelligence and interest.”
Professor Jim Holte, a friend and colleague in the electrical engineering department at the University, agreed. Holte said Schmitt could talk on every level.
Many remembered Schmitt’s willingness to help.
“He was an advisor to hundreds of people around the world on questions both small and large,” said Brian Cummiskey, a personal assistant to Schmitt.
Schmitt was preceded in death by Viola, his wife of 58 years. He is survived by nieces and nephews.
Viola, who also had a triple major, was side by side with Otto throughout their life together, said Cummiskey.
“Viola was the most important single element in Otto’s life,” Holte said. “She kept order in his incredible productivity.”
Friends said that Schmitt had so many inventions and research tools in his office that it was hard to walk around.
Despite all that, “If he needed something, he always knew where it was,” said Branden.
Holte is working with friends and relatives to find a way to remember Schmitt and continue his teaching. One idea is a center that would include a review of his life’s work.
Holte wants to avoid traditional scholarships or memorial funds.
“Otto didn’t give you money; he talked to you,” he said.
Don Craighead, a friend of Schmitt, eulogized the former University professor at the funeral Saturday.
“There was no more humble man than Otto Schmitt,” Craighead said. “I’d be understating it if I said he was a giant in our time.”