Albert Michelson :: Nimitz Library :: USNA

Nimitz Library

Albert A. Michelson: Introduction

"My greatest inspiration is a challenge to attempt the impossible." -- Albert A. Michelson

Albert A. Michelson, USNA Class of 1873, was one of the giants in the scientific world of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He was born on December 19, 1852 in Strelno, Prussia. When he was two, his parents moved to the United States. He grew up in Murphys, California and in 1873 graduated from the United States Naval Academy. Michelson maintained a teaching career as a professor of physics at various institutions, beginning that career at the Naval Academy in 1875. He was the second American citizen, and the first American scientist, to become a Nobel Laureate, receiving the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1907.

Michelson made great strides in the field of physics. His precise measurements of the velocity of light, itself a major scientific contribution, made possible Einstein's theory of relativity. The velocity of light is the constant "c" in the equation E=mc2. Michelson's research also advanced other related fields such as optics, spectroscopy, metrology, astronomy, and geophysics. Michelson was a notable physicist, teacher and remarkable man, whose personal interests ranged from billiards and chess to painting and music. He married twice and had three children from each marriage. Albert A. Michelson died on May 9, 1931, at the age of 78, in Pasadena, California.

See a Guide to the Albert A. Michelson Collection 1803-1989.

Colors of thin films and interference phenomena

Colors of thin films and interference phenomena - Plate I from Michelson's book Light Waves and their Uses, first published in 1903. [441K]

Michelson seated at his desk in the Rhyerson Physical laboratory about 1927

Albert A. Michelson, about 1927, seated at his desk in Room 27, Ryerson Physical Laboratory, the University of Chicago, with one of his revolving mirrors used in the 1926 velocity of light experiment. [1098K]

Notes from one of Michelson’s notebooks, no date given

Notes from one of Michelson's notebooks, n.d. [1072K]

President Ulysses S. Grant awarded Albert A. Michelson a special appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy in 1869. During his four years as a midshipman at the Academy, Michelson excelled in optics, heat and climatology, and drawing. After his graduation in 1873 and two years at sea, he returned to the Academy to become an instructor in physics and chemistry, from 1875 to 1879. During this time in Annapolis he conducted his first experiments of the velocity of light, as part of a class demonstration in 1877.

Although Michelson resigned from the Navy in 1881 to pursue a career in physics, he remained dedicated to and involved with the Navy. From 1891 to 1919, Michelson designed for the Bureau of Ordnance optical range-finders and ear protectors, which were patented and later used for ear protection during gunfire. From 1895-1900, he served as commander of the First Battalion of the Illinois Naval Reserve, which he helped organize. During World War I, Michelson was the head of the scientific research committee at the University of Chicago and served as a lieutenant commander with the Bureau of Ordnance as a scientific consultant. Moreover, Michelson enrolled in the United States Naval Reserve Force on June 28, 1918 for four years. In May 1919, Michelson was promoted to Commander in the Naval Coast Defense Reserve Class 4.

Cadet Midshipman Albert A. Michelson in 1873

Cadet Midshipman Albert A. Michelson in 1873, U. S. Naval Academy.[635K]

One of Michelson's five patents for optical range -finders

One of Michelson's five patents for optical range -finders, patented on May 11, 1909, designed for the Bureau of Ordnance. [1190K]

During World War I, Michelson was on active duty in the U. S. Navy

During World War I, Michelson was on active duty in the U. S. Navy, n.d. [633K]

Letter from A. A. Michelson to Major Millikan, November 6, 1917

Letter from A. A. Michelson to Major Millikan, November 6, 1917 regarding Michelson's ear protectors. [621K]

Albert A. Michelson is renowned for his experiments and precise determinations of the velocity of light, ether drift, length of the standard meter, spectral lines, diameters of stars, and rigidity of the earth. Additionally, Michelson invented different types of instruments to help carry out these experiments. He is best known for his invention of the interferometer, the harmonic analyzer (with S.W. Stratton), the echelon spectroscope, and ruling engines. Michelson accomplished his research and inventions in the course of his teaching career as a professor of physics at various institutions of higher education.

Michelson began his teaching career in December 1875, as an instructor of physics and chemistry at the Naval Academy. He left the Academy in 1879 to aid Simon Newcomb in his experiments with the velocity of light at the Nautical Almanac Office. From 1880 to 1882, Michelson pursued graduate studies in Berlin, Heidelberg, and Paris, followed by seven years as an velocityThe velocity of light is so enormously greater than anything with which we are accustomed to deal that the mind has some little difficulty in grasping it. we can, perhaps, give a better idea of this velocity by saying that light will travel around the world seven times between two ticks of a clock. -- Albert A. Michelson, Light Waves and their Uses (1903), p.146instructor in physics at the then newly established Case School of Applied Science, from 1882-1889. He then moved to Worcester, Massachusetts to become the first Chair of Physics at Clark University from 1889-1892.

Michelson's longest and most significant teaching tenure, however, was as Professor and first Head of the Department of Physics at the University of Chicago, from 1892-1930. He was one of the first physicists to occupy the Ryerson Physical Laboratory, which would eventually employ a number of Nobel Laureates and later become known as the home of the "Manhattan Project." Albert A. Michelson officially retired from teaching in 1930, having received the first "Distinguished Service Professor" award by the University in 1925. Earlier in his career, Michelson had also been an exchange professor in Germany and France.

It was during his days as an instructor at the Naval Academy that Michelson conducted his first velocity of light experiments as a part of a class demonstration in 1877. He made an important modification of Foucault's earlier method for determining the velocity of light. He contributed ten dollars of his own money for a revolving mirror, which enabled him to complete the experiment successfully. Michelson's determination in 1882 at Case of the velocity of light, 299, 853 +/- 60 (km/sec), became the standard measurement until his more accurate result of 299,796 +/- 4 (km/sec) at Mount Wilson in 1926. The latter is still considered the most accurate result using optical techniques.

In 1929, at Irvine Ranch in California, Michelson began his last attempt to determine the most exact measurement of the velocity of light in a vacuum tube. The final results of this experiment were determined in 1933, two years after Michelson's death, by his long-time associate Fred Pearson and astronomer F. G. Pease. The velocity calculation of 299,774+/- 11 (km/sec) was the least accurate of all of Michelson's attempts. The current accepted measurement of the velocity of light, or of the constant "c", is about 300,000 km/sec or 186,000 miles/sec.

Some of Michelson's other significant discoveries include the length of the standard meter (used as the standard length from 1893-1960), the rigidity and elasticity of the earth in 1919, and in 1920 the first measurement of the angular diameter of a star (the star In everything he did, whether it was work or play, he was an artist; he took equal delight in finding the cause of the iridescence of the butterfly's wing and in conducting the ether-drift experiments by which laid the experimental foundation for the theory of relativity. To him values were not measured by the acclaim of the world. To his friends he was like the sea on a summer's day-serene, illimitable, unfathomable. -- Albert Einstein named "Betelgeuse" einsteinof the constellation Orion). He also studied the metallic colors in birds and insects. In addition to his research and teaching, over seventy-five of Michelson's articles and lectures were published, along with three of his books: Determination Experimentale de la Valuer du Metre en Longueurs d'Ondes Lumineuses (1894), Light Waves and Their Uses (1903) and Studies in Optics (1927). Michelson's report conveying the results of his experiment at the U. S. Naval Academy in 1879, "Experimental Determination of the Velocity of Light", was also later published in 1880.

Throughout his career, Michelson taught and inspired people who would themselves become successful teachers, physicists, and inventors. His most indelible sphere of influence existed at the University of Chicago. Notable scientists, such as S.W. Stratton and George Ellery Hale, had collaborated with Michelson on various projects while making a name for themselves in their respective fields. Stratton, who later became Director of the National Bureau of Standards and President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, helped Michelson with teaching as well as with the invention and development of the Michelson-Stratton harmonic analyzer. Hale, who became a famous astrophysicist noted for his discoveries about the surface of the sun, was a colleague of Michelson's in the Physics Department; while at the University of Chicago he organized the Yerkes Observatory and from 1904-1923 also organized and directed the Mount Wilson Observatory. Robert A. Millikan, a Michelson student and later one of his faculty members, became the second American to win the Novel Prize in Physics in 1923. He was well known for his research of electricity, optics, and molecular physics. Arthur Holly Compton, also a faculty member in Michelson's department at Chicago, became the third American physicist to win the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1927. He was recognized for his work on cosmic rays, atomic energy, and the Compton effect.

First page from a reproduction of Michelson's report on his

First page from a reproduction of Michelson's report on his "Experimental Determination of the Velocity of Light" conducted at the U. S. Naval Academy. He submitted this report to the Secretary of the Navy via letter on September 29, 1879. [488K]

Ryerson Laboratory staff at the University of Chicago, 1926

Ryerson Laboratory staff at the University of Chicago, 1926. Michelson was one of the first occupants of Ryerson Physical Laboratory in 1892, when he began working at he University of Chicago as a professor of Physics and the first Head of the Department. [951K]

Lecture notes from one of Michelson’s notebooks, n.d. [506K]

Lecture notes from one of Michelson’s notebooks, n.d. [506K]

Schematic diagram of the Michelson interferometer, n.d. [1052K]

Schematic diagram of the Michelson interferometer, n.d. [1052K]

Michelson using a spectrograph to test a diffraction grating, Ryerson Physical Laboratory, University of Chicago, circa 1920. [646K]

Michelson using a spectrograph to test a diffraction grating, Ryerson Physical Laboratory, University of Chicago, circa 1920. [646K]

Michelson invented different types of interferometers, such as the small interferometer and the vertical interferometer, in addition to the well known traditional Michelson interferometer. The angular interferometer is shown here, n.d. [637K]

Michelson invented different types of interferometers, such as the small interferometer and the vertical interferometer, in addition to the well known traditional Michelson interferometer. The angular interferometer is shown here, n.d. [637K]

Michelson’s colleagues and assistants at the velocity of light experiment site in Clearing, Illinois, in the winter of 1924. [1109K]

Michelson’s colleagues and assistants at the velocity of light experiment site in Clearing, Illinois, in the winter of 1924. [1109K]

The Michelson-Stratton harmonic analyzer, one of the first mechanical analogue computers, recorded data from spectroscopic experiments, n.d. [795K]

The Michelson-Stratton harmonic analyzer, one of the first mechanical analogue computers, recorded data from spectroscopic experiments, n.d. [795K]

Albert A. Michelson (center) with (left to right) M.L. Humason, Edwin Hubble, C.E. St. John, Albert Einstein, W.W. Campbell, and W.S. Adams in the library of the Mount Wilson Observatory, Pasadena, California, in early 1931. [955K]

Albert A. Michelson (center) with (left to right) M.L. Humason, Edwin Hubble, C.E. St. John, Albert Einstein, W.W. Campbell, and W.S. Adams in the library of the Mount Wilson Observatory, Pasadena, California, in early 1931. [955K]

Michelson’s notes and painted depiction of a “Humming Bird Feather in Reflected Light,” from one of his notebooks, circa 1925-1926. [541K]

Michelson’s notes and painted depiction of a “Humming Bird Feather in Reflected Light,” from one of his notebooks, circa 1925-1926. [541K]

Throughout his lifetime, Michelson received over fifteen medals and prizes, twelve honorary degrees, and numerous honorary and elected positions in professional organizations and swedishsocieties related to the discipline of science. The Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences during its session of 12 November 1907 reached the decision…to confer the prize awarded this year…to Albert A. Michelson for his precision optical instruments and the spectroscopic and metrological investigation conducted therewith. -The Swedish Royal Academy of Science, Stockholm, 10 December 1907.Besides being awarded prestigious medals and prizes such as the Matteucci Medal (1903), the Copley Medal (1907), the Franklin Medal (1923) and the Duddell Medal (1929), Michelson most notably received the Nobel Prize in Physics on December 10, 1907. Two days later, as part of the ceremonies for this prize, Michelson delivered his Nobel Lecture entitled “Recent Advances in Spectroscopy.” Distinguished universities around the world, such as Western Reserve University, the University of Cambridge, Yale University, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Paris, and Princeton University, conferred honorary Ph.D., Sc.D., and LL.D. degrees upon Michelson throughout his career.

Albert A. Michelson was both a regular member and an honorary member of numerous internationally recognized franklinprofessional societies, such as the ... I doubt if any scientific man does his work to render distinguished service, I think he does it because it is good fun. -- Albert A. Michelson, excerpt from his acceptance speech for the Franklin Medal, May 16, 1923.Royal Astronomical Society, the American Philosophical Society, the Sociedad Astronomica de Mexico, the Optical Society of America, Societe Francaise de Physique, and the Russian Academy of Science. Michelson also took an active leadership role in several of these professional organizations. In 1888, he was Vice President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and its President in 1910. Michelson was also President of the American Physical Society in 1901 and President of the National Academy of Sciences in 1923.

Letter to Albert A. Michelson from the Sociedad Astronomica de Mexico, recognizing him as an honorary member, January 8, 1903.

Letter to Albert A. Michelson from the Sociedad Astronomica de Mexico, recognizing him as an honorary member, January 8, 1903.

Stamp of 1907 Nobel Laureates Buchner and Michelson, commemoratively produced in 1967.

Stamp of 1907 Nobel Laureates Buchner and Michelson, commemoratively produced in 1967.

Notification by the American Association for the Advancement of Science to Albert A. Michelson of his election to the office of President, January 3, 1910.

Notification by the American Association for the Advancement of Science to Albert A. Michelson of his election to the office of President, January 3, 1910.

"It seems to me that scientific research should be regarded as a painter regards his art, a poet his poems, and a composer his music." -- Albert A. Michelson

In 1877, Albert Michelson married Margaret Heminway, and with her had three children, Albert Heminway, Truman, and relaxationElsa. This first marriage ended in divorce in 1897, and Michelson never saw most of those family members again. Michelson was married to his second wife Edna Stanton from 1899 until his death in 1931. Together Michelson and Stanton had three daughters named Madeleine, Beatrice, and Dorothy.

Albert A. Michelson had many interests outside of the realm of physics and science, including music, art, billiards, chess, and tennis. His interest in the violin began when he was a child, grew during his years at the Naval Academy, and eventually led to musical composition. Michelson expressed his interest in art through sketching, and painting watercolors. The majority of Michelson’s painting was completed in his later years and during his retirement, consisting mostly of watercolors of California landscapes. Some of Michelson’s watercolors were exhibited at the Pasadena Art Institute in 1931, shortly before his death.

At the University of Chicago Michelson was known for his love of chess and tennis, but mostly for his skill at playing billiards. While at the University he became a co-founder and a Vice President of the Renaissance Society in 1916, a society for the "cultivation of the arts."

Michelson with his second wife, Edna Stanton, and their three daughters Madeleine, Dorothy, and Beatrice, n.d. [557K]

Michelson with his second wife, Edna Stanton, and their three daughters Madeleine, Dorothy, and Beatrice, n.d. [557K]

Watercolor painted by Albert A. Michelson, Altadena, California, 1929. [1232K]

Watercolor painted by Albert A. Michelson, Altadena, California, 1929. [1232K]

“Grandpa’s Lullaby,” written by Michelson on May 4, 1930. [697K]

“Grandpa’s Lullaby,” written by Michelson on May 4, 1930. [697K]

Michelson playing billiards, n.d.

Michelson playing billiards, n.d.

"It is the pitting of one's brains against bits of iron, metals and crystals and making them do what you want them to do. When you are successful that is all the reward you want." -- Albert A. Michelson, The New York Times, January 18, 1929

Although truly a "Renaissance Man," Michelson has typically been remembered for his breakthroughs and refinements in the field of science. Since his death in 1931, numerous organizations and institutions have paid tribute to Michelson’s millikanvaried and abundant scientific accomplishments. In The whole development of our modern physics is intimately bound up with Albert A. Michelson's precision of measurement. -Robert A. Millikan, Pasadena Star-News, May 18, 1931May 1948, the Michelson Laboratory at the Naval Ordnance Test Station in China Lake, California was dedicated. Interest in the materials exhibited at this dedication eventually led to the Michelson Museum, a collection and exhibition of Michelson memorabilia at this same location. In addition, the Navy honored Michelson with the USNS Michelson in 1957, and on May 10, 1969 the U.S. Naval Academy dedicated the academic building Michelson Hall. Michelson was again remembered on October 21, 1973 by the Hall of Fame for Great Americans, then a part of New York University (and now a part of Bronx Community College, within the City University of New York), with the unveiling a of bronze bust and tablet.

Since that time, numerous awards, lectures, and honors have been created in Albert A. Michelson’s name. Some of the current awards and lectures named for Michelson include the following: the Bomem-Michelson Award and Lecture annually presented by the Coblentz Society; the Michelson-Morley Award and Lecture, along with the Michelson Lecture Series, and the Michelson Postdoctoral Prize Lectureship, all of which are 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.

Bust of Albert A. Michelson, Hall of Fame for Great Americans, New York University, n.d. [637K]

Bust of Albert A. Michelson, Hall of Fame for Great Americans, New York University, n.d. [637K]

Michelson Hall , U.S. Naval Academy, n.d. [639K]

Michelson Hall , U.S. Naval Academy, n.d. [639K]

Bennett, Jean M., D. Theodore McAllister, and Georgia M. Cabe. "Albert A. Michelson, Dean of American Optics--Life, Contributions to Science, and Influence On Modern-Day Physics," Applied Optics. Vol. 12, No. 10, October 1973: 2253-2279.

Goldberg, Stanley, and Roger H. Steuwer, editors.  The Michelson Era in American Science, 1870-1930.  New York:  American Institute of Physics, 1988.

Hughes, Thomas Parke.  Science and the Instrument-Maker:  Michelson, Sperry, and the Speed of Light.  Washington, D.C.:  Smithsonian Institution Press, 1976.

Jaffe, Bernard.  Michelson and the Speed of Light.  Westport, Conn.:  Greenwood Press, 1979, c1960.

Livingston, Dorothy Michelson.  The Master of Light:  A Biography of Albert A. Michelson.  New York:  Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1973.

“Michelson, Albert Abraham.” Dictionary of American Biography.  New York:  Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1933.

Sartori, Leo.  Understanding Relativity:  A Simplified Approach to Einstein’s Theories.  Berkeley:  University of California Press, 1996.

Serafini, Anthony.  Legends in Their Own Time:  A Century of American Physical Scientists.  New York:  Plenum Press, 1993.

Technical Information Department, Naval Weapons Center, China Lake, California. Albert Abraham Michelson: The Man Who Taught A World To Measure. May 1970.

The images in this exhibition are from the U. S. Naval Academy's Albert A. Michelson Collection, MS 347. Gift funds generously provided by the Class of 1956 have made possible the arrangement and description of the Albert A. Michelson Collection and the creation of this Albert A. Michelson web exhibition. To learn more about this Naval Academy class, visit the web pages "Then and Now: Class of 1956."

Emily Close Hubbard, Project Archivist, wrote the text and selected the images for this web exhibition. She also devised the overall concept for the site.

Albert A. Michelson, about 1927, seated at his desk

Personal Life and Interests (Michelson Painting)

play video [Michelson sitting in a garden, painting with watercolors]

Albert Michelson was a man of many interests; he excelled in tennis, bridge, chess, and billiards. His artistic ability extended beyond his scientific work into the fields of painting and music. This candid glimpse of him enjoying his favorite pastime of watercolor painting, was taken in Pasadena about 1930. Michelson loved music, and was himself a proficient amateur violinist.

[Close up of Michelson's watercolor]

The music which you are hearing was composed by him for his grandchildren; "Grandpa's Lullaby" is what he named it. Painting had been a hobby of his ever since the Naval Academy period. In 1928, the Renaissance Society of Chicago sponsored a one man exhibit of his watercolors. During the last ten years of his life, he divided his time between scientific investigations and painting trips to the beaches, arroyos, and mountains. This was Albert Abraham Michelson, scientist, artist, musician, teacher; America's first Nobel Prize winner in science.

[Close up of Michelson's face smiling]

The man who pursued physics because, as he put it, "It's such good fun."

Career and Influence (Michelson demonstrating the equipment used in determining the velocity of light)

play video [Prof. Michelson sitting down demonstrating equipment]

The second candid glimpse of Professor Michelson shows him demonstrating some of the equipment to be used in the measurement of the velocity of light. Preliminary tests were conducted in 1929 at Ross Field, Arcadia, California. For the benefit of the camera man, Michelson is exaggerating the movement of the eyepiece, as he pretends to scan the small rotating mirror in the upper right hand corner of the frame to locate the path of the returning beam of light. In normal operation, this very accurately constructed rotating mirror, the heart of the experiment, is spun at nearly 44,000 revolutions per minute.

[Michelson gets up to adjust plane mirror]

Next, Michelson demonstrates the adjustment of one of the plane mirrors that was later to go into the mile long vacuum tube, not used during these preliminary tests.

[Michelson adjusts mirror – photographer can be seen in the mirror's reflection]

Here the concave mirror is being adjusted. Judging by the image in the mirror, the photographer was using a hand-crank camera. This mirror was also incorporated into the vacuum tube assembly during the actual experiments conducted later at the Irvine Ranch near Santa Anna.

[Michelson examines rotating mirror taken out of normal configuration]

To better demonstrate operation of the rotating mirror, it was here removed from its normal position, in line with the eyepiece, and propped up with a stone to catch the sun's rays. Michelson received recognition for his method of determining the velocity of light in 1878 while at the Naval Academy. He was still refining the measurements when he died in 1931.

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