Birthday: December 19, 1852
Died At Age: 78
Sun Sign: Sagittarius
Also Known As: Albert Abraham Michelson
Born in: Strzelno, Kingdom of Prussia (modern Poland)
Famous as: Physicist
Spouse/Ex-: Edna Stanton (m. 1899–1931), Margaret Heminway (m. 1877–1897)
children: Albert Heminway Michelson, Beatrice Michelson, Dorothy Michelson, Elsa Michelson, Madeleine Michelson, Truman Michelson
Died on: May 9, 1931
place of death: Pasadena, California
education: United States Naval Academy (1869 – 1873), Lowell High School (1868), Humboldt University of Berlin
awards: 1907 - Nobel Prize in Physics
1907 - Copley Medal
1919 - Henry Draper Medal
1912 - Elliott Cresson Medal
1903 - Matteucci Medal
1923 - Franklin Medal
1923 - Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society
1888 - Rumford Prize
Albert Abraham Michelson was the first American scientist who received the Nobel Prize for Physics for his work on finding the speed of light. He designed and developed a device named ‘interferometer’ which could split a beam of light into two parts. The two parts of the same beam traveled at right angles to each other and were then brought together again. With his fellow scientist Edward Williams Morley he carried out an experiment with this device which is known as the ‘Michelson-Morley experiment’. The experiment helped him to conclude that the speed of light is 299,853 km per second. This figure remained the same for almost fifty years till he was able to design another device which produced a more accurate result. The speed of light was determined this time as 299,798 km per sec which was refined further to 299, 774 km per sec. He was also able to measure for the first time the size of the star ‘Betelgeuse’ to be 386,160,000 km with another special interferometer. He was unable to live to see the final results of his final experiment on the velocity of light which has been standardized. He also determined the length of the standard meter with the red light emitted by hot cadmium.
Childhood & Early Life
Albert A. Michelson was born on December 19, 1852 in Strzelno in the province of Posen, Prussia, currently located in Poland.
When he was only two, his Jewish parents immigrated to the United States in 1855.
He grew up in the mining towns of California and his family finally settled in Virginia City in Nevada.
His father was a successful merchant and sent his son to the public schools where Albert received his initial education.
He finished high school while staying with his aunt Henriette Levy Michelson in San Francisco.
He joined the ‘United States Naval Academy’ in Annapolis, Maryland in 1869 at the age of 17.
At the academy he excelled in optics and graduated as a midshipman in 1873.
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After being on a naval cruise for two years, Albert A. Michelson returned to the academy and joined as an instructor in physics and chemistry in 1875.
In 1877 while in Annapolis, he conducted his first experiment on the speed of light.
In 1879 he determined that light travelled in air and in vacuum at 299,864 ± 51 km per second and 299,940 km per second respectively.
In 1879 he was transferred to the ‘Nautical Almanac Office’ in Washington which was a part of the ‘United States Naval Observatory’ where he worked with Simon Newcomb.
The academy granted him leave of absence and he went to Europe in 1880 to continue further studies on optics at the universities of Heidelberg and Berlin. He also studied at the ‘College de France’ and the ‘Ecole Polytecnique’ located in Paris. He stayed in Europe for two years. He resigned from the navy in 1881.
In 1883 he became professor in physics at the ‘Case School of Applied Science’ situated in Cleveland, Ohio where he developed a better ‘interferometer’.
In 1887 he and Morley conducted the famous ‘Michelson-Morley experiment’ to determine the speed of light which remained as standard for the next forty or more years until Michelson himself obtained a better result.
In 1889 he joined the ‘Clark University’ in Worcester, Massachusetts as a professor.
He was appointed the first head of the physics department of the newly started ‘University of Chicago’ in 1892.
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From 1920, Michelson devoted himself to using a baseline measurement method with the distance between the ‘Mount Wilson Observatory’ and ‘Lookout Mountain’ serving as the baseline.
The measurement was started in 1922 and completed in 1924 by the ‘U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey’. Experiments done by him in the next two years came up with the result of 299,796 ± 4 km per sec. But this result was controversial because of the change in baseline which occurred due to a 6.3 magnitude earthquake in June 29, 1925 and other factors.
After 1927, many experiments were carried out using electricity to measure the speed of light which produced lower values than what Michelson had arrived at in 1926.
In 1930, he collaborated with Fred Pearson and Francis G. Pease in conducting a new experiment in Pasadena, California. He used a 1.6 Km long tube from which air was completely evacuated.
Awards & Achievements
Albert A. Michelson was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1907 for his experiments on the speed of light with his self-made optical instruments.
He also received many other awards such as the ‘Copley Medal’ in 1907, the ‘Henry Draper Medal’ in 1916 and the ‘Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society’ in 1923.
Personal Life & Legacy
Albert A. Michelson died on May 9, 1931 in Pasadena, California.
Many universities and the US Naval academy have named halls and museums after him.
A crater on the Moon is named after him.