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Albert A. Michelson


Albert A. MichelsonBorn December 19 1852 at Strzelno, Kingdom of Prussia

Died May 9 1931 at Pasadena California

Albert Michelson was an immigrant boy who spent much of his childhood in Virginia City and was appointed by President Grant to the Naval Academy from Nevada in 1869. He resigned from the Navy in 1883 to teach physics and in 1907 was the first American to be awarded a Nobel Prize in the sciences for Physics, principally for measuring the speed of light.

Albert’s parents, Rosalie and Samuel, left their village in present-day Poland when he was a toddler of three and his sister Pauline still a baby, steamng from Hamburg to New York. From there the family took ship to Porto Bello Panama, and from there across the isthmus by canoe, on foot, by muleback and railroad. They journeyed on by ship to San Francisco and from there by stagecoach to Murphy’s Camp. Samuel’s sister Belle’s husband Oscar Meyer was established there with a mining operation. Samuel set up a store selling miner’s supplies: tools, clothing and tents.

Young AlbertAlbert was five when he began attending the public school in Murphy’s where his subjects included violin lessons. Over the next eight years his siblings Julie, Benjamin, Bessie and Miriam were born, and in 1864 Albert was sent to San Francisco to live with his aunt Belle and uncle Oscar Meyer, to attend a “proper school.”

After two years there he graduated to Boys’ High School where he had his first taste of science, continued with the violin and learned to box. When Albert returned home to Murphy’s, he found his parents preparing to leave the depressed town for Virginia City. When they piled their children into the wagon for the journey over the Sierra via Ebbett’s Pass, Albert was among them.

Murphy's CaliforniaSamuel set up his Miner’s Supply business on the ground floor of a building at 24 South C Street and moved his family into the upstairs. Albert was given his middle name Abraham after Lincoln’s assassination.

In 1869 Albert graduted from high school and a seventh child, Charlie, was born. Armed with a letter of recommendation from his principal to Tom Fitch, Nevada’s only congressman, Albert sat for the examination administered to all applicants seeking a presidential appointment to Annapolis.

Tom FitchAlbert was one of three applicants tied for first place in the exam and Fitch selected one of the others for the appointment. But he didn’t abandon Albert. On June 17th he wrote to President Grant, enthusiastically recommending him for appointment to Annapolis:

“His father is a prominent and influential merchant of Virginia City, and a member of the Israelite persuasion, who by his example and influence has largely contributed to the success of our [Republican] cause, and induced many of his co-religionists to do the same. These people are a powerful element in our politics, the boy who is uncommonly bright and studious is a pet among them, and I do most steadfastly believe that his appointment at your hands, would do more to fasten these people to the Republican cause, than anything else that could be done.

“I am sure that young Michelson could pass even a severer examination than that made at the Naval Academy, and that he would be an ornament to the service, and a credit to his nominator, and if you can give him the place you will never regret it.”

Armed with a similar letter (minus the politics) from Fitch to the president, 16 year-old Albert boarded the recently completed Union Pacific railroad train at Reno and departed for Washington alone. Grant received him at the White House, but explained he had already filled the ten appointments-at-large permitted to him. The Naval officer escorting him out suggested he go to Annapolis in case one of the president’s appointments failed the examination.

He did, waited for three days, took the examination, and was then told there was no vacancy available. He went back to Washington, boarded a westbound train and was waiting glumly for departure when he heard his name called. A messenger from the White House explained that Vice Admiral Porter, one of his examiners at Annapolis, had persuaded president Grant to make an exception and make an eleventh appointment-at-large.

United States Naval AcademyMidshipman MichelsonHe was accepted on June 28 1869, and said ever after that he was the beneficiary of the president’s “illegal act”.

Michelson graduated from the Naval Academy in 1873 as a Midshipman. He was ranked last in his class in History, but first in Optics and Acoustics and ninth over-all (and also in demerits).

After a summer furlough in Virginia City he was routinely assigned to two years’ sea duty. In that time he served aboard five vessels cruising throughout the Caribbean and as far south as Rio de Janeiro. He was promoted to Ensign in 1874, and on December 16 1875 was assigned to be an instructor of physics and chemistry at the Academy under LCDR William T. Sampson.

Margaret MichelsonIn 1876 he met Sampson’s neice, Margaret Heminway of New Rochelle New York, and on April 10 1877 he married her at her family home, The Towers.

Upon return from their honeymoon Albert was ordered aboard the ancient USS Constellation, carrying the Academy midshipmen on their summer cruise, and when he returned from that he was given the assignment of teaching about the experiments in determining the speed of light.

On January 28 1878 Margaret gave birth to a son, named Albert Heminway Michelson in honor of her father. On August 11 a second son, Truman, was born. Daughter Elsa was born in Heidelberg in 1881.

In April and May of that year Michelson used instruments he had devised, made to his specifications (and paid for by his father-in-law), to make his first attempt at measuring the speed of light. He arrived at 186,380 miles per second; three years later he corrected that result to 186,355 miles per second.

On May 14 1879 the Virginia City Chronicle published a report of his achievement:



Ensign A.A. Michelson, a son of S. Michelson, the dry goods merchant of this city, has aroused the attention of the scientific minds of the country by his remarkable discoveries in measuring the velocity of light. The New York Times says:

“It would seem that the scientific world of America is destined to be adorned with a new and brilliant name, Ensign Albert A. Michelson, a graduate of the Annapolis Naval Academy, and not yet 27 years of age, has distinguished himself by studies in the science of optics which promise the discovery of a method for measuring the velocity of light with almost as much accuracy as the velocity of an ordinary projectile.”

Michelson spent the winter of 1879-1880 collaborating with Simon Newcomb, another respected researcher working on the speed of light, and in April 1880 delivered a paper titled “On the modifications suffered by Light on passing through a very narrow slit” to the National Academy of Sciences.

In September 1880 he requested and received a year’s leave of absence from the Naval Academy, and traveled with Margaret and their young sons to Berlin, by way of Paris. There he first conceived of a device to measure the velocity of the Earth through the solar system. Michelson's interferometerOnce in Germany, with funds provided by the Volta Foundation established by Alexander Graham Bell, he set up a basement laboratory at the University of Berlin and developed the instrument he called an interferential refractometer, later mercifully shortened to interferometer.

It was then supposed that light, whether particles or waves — still a topic of debate since the 17th century explorations of Isaac Newton [particles] and Christiaan Huygens [waves] — moved through a substance called the ether, which was believed to be be flowing over the Earth’s surface at a rate about equal to the planet’s speed traveling through space. The interferometer was designed to measure the effect of the Earth’s motion on the ether (then spelled aether) by splitting a beam of light in two, sending them in different directions and measuring the difference in their arrival times over the same distance.

The expectation was two different results because of the “drag” imposed by passing through the ether, but the arrival times were identical. It was as if, driving along at 70 mph, you had put your elbow out the window and felt the air still. It prompted the supposition that the ether, even that ether which immediately surrounds it, moves through space along with the earth. This possibility allowed Michelson to accept the presence of ether even though he did not detect it.

The Michelsons moved to Heidelberg in the summer of 1881 and from there on to Paris. His relationship with the Navy was fraying and he began to cast about for an academic appointment, which resulted in an offer from the newly established Case School of Applied Science in Cleveland: $2,000 annual salary plus up to $10,000 to outfit his laboratory there. He accepted, resigned from the Navy, and packed up the family for home.

In the fall of 1886 a fire of unexplained origin destroyed the main building of the school, including Michelson’s laboratory and all its equipment. Nevertheless, by the following April he and chemist Edward Morley had begun the experiment to measure the effect of the ether on the velocity of light, and to compute the speed of the earth in orbit from the “drag” imposed on the velocity of light by the ether.

To accomplish this he mounted the optical parts of the interferometer on a massive stone slab 14 inches thick, floating on a ring bed filled with 200 pounds of mercury. He also increased the optical path length, through repeated reflections, to a distance ten times longer.

At noon on July 8, 9, and 11 1887; and then for one hour on each of those evenings, Michelson and Morley (pictured above at about the time of their experiment) conducted  their experiment. Read their report on the experiment here.

But passing through the ether didn’t effect the velocity of light; it traveled at the same speed in all directions. The elbow out the car window didn’t feel any wind. . . . because there is no ether. The great importance of the experiment lay in its failure, but Michelson accepted the aether as something “that ought to be true” and minimized the possibly revolutionary consequences of his own experiments throughout his life.

Michelson at the blackboardIn 1890 he moved to Clark University at Worcester, Massachusetts.

Two years later, in an attempt to establish a nonmaterial standard of length that would remain forever constant and could not be destroyed, he was invited by the International Bureau of Weights & Measures to measure the meter in terms of cadmium light waves.

In 1892 Michelson left Clark University to become Professor of Physics and the first Head of Department at the new University of Chicago. There, George Gregory Hale, Associate Professor of Astrophysics and director of the Kenwood Astrophysical Observatory, became a close friend.

Wikipedia gives this partial list of the honors and achievements bestowed upon Michelson during his career:

Wikipedia also lists numerous awards, lectures, and honors created in his name including: the Bomem-Michelson Award and Lecture annually presented until 2017 by the Coblentz Society; the Michelson–Morley Award and Lecture, along with the Michelson Lecture Series, and the Michelson Postdoctoral Prize Lectureship, all given annually by Case Western Reserve University; the A.A. Michelson Award presented every year by the Computer Measurement Group; the Albert A. Michelson Award given by the Navy League of the United States; and the Michelson Memorial Lecture Series presented annually by the Division of Mathematics and Science at the U.S. Naval Academy.

As these lists suggest, Michelson was a hard-working, highly productive person, but he could also play. He played the violin throughout his life; he was a strong amateur tennis player; he was billiards champion at the Quadrangle Club in Chicago; he played chess; he sketched and painted since his Naval Academy days. He read detective novels as soporifics, with “absolutely no memory of plots” so he could read them again and again.Edna Stanton

On January 6 1898 he and Margaret were divorced; on December 23 of the following year he married Edna Stanton, with whom he had three daughters. The youngest, Dorothy, wrote his biography, “The Master of Light“, published in 1973.

In 1902 he published “The Velocity of Light” and in 1903 he published “Light Waves and their Uses”.

The Nobel MedalEnroute to Stockholm to collect his Nobel Prize in 1907 Mickelson had a spat with Rudyard Kipling, also Stockholm-bound, over his “unflattering remarks regarding Americans and the United States.” On December 10 1907 Count Morner, President of the Royal Academy, presented him the prize in recognition of his original methods for ensuring exactness in measurements, for his investigations in spectroscopy, and for his achievements in obtaining a nonmaterial standard of length. He did not mention the ether-drift experiment. Count Morner presented Michelson with a beautifully decorated diploma enclosed in an elegant leather cover, the large gold medal engraved with the likeness of Alfred Nobel, and a check for 139,000 Swedish kroner (about $40,000).

Albert A. Michelson, USNMichelson rejoined the Navy in April 1917 at the onset of WWI. He was commissioned a Lieutenant Commander in the Naval Coast Defense Reserve and assigned a laboratory at the Bureau of Standards. In this capacity he resumed development of a hand-held range finder he had put aside in 1891. He also experimented with techniques to perfect the manufacture of glass for use in submarine periscopes, telescopes and gun sights. He devised ultra-sensitive tripod-mounted binoculars — six inches high, 18 wide and 24 wide — for use in detecting submarines at night or dim daylight in the open sea.

His old friend George Gregory Hale had left the University of Chicago in 1904 and realized a lifelong dream by building an observatory atop Mount Wilson above Pasadena. With Michelson’s looming discharge, Hale renewed his efforts to persuade him to move west. Released from Navy by Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1919 with the rank of Commander he returned to Chicago. In August he visited Hale at the Mount Wilson Observatory in southern California.

In the summer of 1920 Michelson redesigned his stellar interferometer to measure the size of the star Beteleguese, at the time regarded by some as “probably the most important astronomical development of this century.”

Einstein at U. ChicagoIn 1921 Albert Einstein visited America to promote the Zionist cause and to lecture at Princeton. Enroute he stopped at Chicago and discussed another ether-drift experiment which had been proposed to Michelson involving the earth’s rotation on its axis. Einstein favored the experiment as a crucial test of his General Theory of Relativity, and Michelson expressed his admiration of “his work and especially his disinterested attitude in seeking truth.”

Ever since joining the summer staff at Mount Wilson Observatory above Pasadena in 1922, Michelson had been preparing for a new determination of the speed of light, to be measured between the mountaintops of Mt. Wilson and Mt.Baldy, 22 miles apart. The light beam furnished by a Sperry arc light powered by a DC generator was especially bright.

He published “Studies in Optics” in 1927, and in 1929 he resigned from the University of Chicago to work full time at the Mount Wilson Observatory. Einstein had acknowledged Michelson’s contribution to his own work at a dinner in his honor at the California Institute of Technology during a visit in April 1931:

“You, my honored Dr. Michelson, began with this work when I was only a little youngster, hardly three feet high. It was you who led the physicists into new paths, through your marvelous experimental work paved the way for the development of the theory of relativity. You uncovered an insidious defect in the ether theory of light, as it then existed, and stimulated the ideas of H.A. Lorentz and Fitzgerald, out of which the special theory of relativity developed. These in turn pointed the way to the general theory of relativity, and to the theory of gravitation.”

Michelson died a few weeks later, on May 9 1931.


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