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Michelson and the Speed of Light

  POSTED ON: Friday, October 18, 2019 2:08 PM by MIDN 2/C Julian Olivarez

Albert Abraham Michelson was born in Strelno, Prussia, on December 19, 1852. At the age of two his family emigrated to the United States where they eventually moved to San Francisco.

He was appointed by President Grant to the U.S. Naval Academy and after graduation as Ensign with the Class of 1873, began a two-year cruise in the West Indies. Following this, he became an instructor in physics and chemistry at the Academy under Admiral Sampson.

Michelson resigned from the Navy in 1883 to become a Professor of Physics in the Case School of Applied Science, Cleveland, Ohio. He taught as a professor of physics at several more universities before rejoining the Navy during World War I. He invented the echelon spectroscope and during his wartime service in the Navy, he performed research work on a rangefinder which was adapted as part of U.S. Navy equipment.

During his career, Michelson touched on many departments of physics but excelled in optics. He performed early measurements of the speed of light with unprecedented accuracy and won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work, becoming the first American to do so. Using an Interferometer, an instrument he designed, Michelson proved that light travels at a constant speed in all inertial systems of reference and enabled distances to be measured with greater accuracy using light waves. The standard meter was measured by Michelson in terms of wavelength of cadmium light at the request of the International Committee of Weights and Measures. Michelson died on May 9th, 1931.

The memorial outside of the academic buildings of Chauvenet and Michelson (named in his honor) shows where Albert Michelson conducted his experiment to accurately measure the speed of light along the old sea wall of the Naval Academy.

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