Michelson, Albert Abraham

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Michelson, Albert Abraham

(mī`kəlsən), 1852–1931, American physicist, b. Strelno, Prussia, grad. Annapolis, 1873, and studied at Berlin, Heidelberg, and Paris. He was professor of physics at Clark Univ. (1889–92) and later was head of the department of physics at the Univ. of Chicago (1892–1931). He is known especially for his determinations of the speed of light; in some of his earliest work he tested the data of Foucault's experiments and, then and later, with apparatus (including the interferometer) that he designed and built himself, measured the speed of light to an unequaled degree of accuracy. He measured (1892–93) the length of the standard meter in Paris in terms of the wave length of the red line of the cadmium spectrum, using his interferometer method. The wave length thus provided an absolute and exactly reproducible standard of length. With E. W. Morley he conducted the Michelson-Morley experiment (1887), which failed to detect any difference in the speed of light caused by the motion of the earth through space. That led to the refutation of the ether hypothesis and contributed to the development of Einstein's theory of relativity. Michelson was the first to measure the diameter of a distant star. He also demonstrated that the earth as a whole is rigid, not molten. Awarded the 1907 Nobel Prize in Physics, he was the first American scientist to receive the honor. His major writings include Velocity of Light (1902) and Studies in Optics (1927).


See biography by his daughter, D. M. Livingston (1973).

Michelson, Albert Abraham


Born Dec. 19, 1852, in Strelno (now Strzelno, Poland); died May 9, 1931, in Pasadena, Calif. American physicist.

In 1854, Michelson emigrated to the USA with his parents. He graduated from the US Naval Academy in 1873, and from 1873 to 1881 he served in the navy and taught at the academy. From 1880 to 1882 he studied at the universities of Berlin, Heidelberg, and Paris. Between 1883 and 1889, Michelson was a professor at the Case School of Applied Science in Cleveland, Ohio. From 1889 to 1892 he taught at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. Between 1892 and 1929 he was a professor at the University of Chicago. He was also president of the National Academy of Sciences from 1923 to 1927.

Michelson made measurements of the velocity of light between 1878 and 1882 and between 1924 and 1926 that long remained unsurpassed in accuracy. In 1881 he proved experimentally and in 1885-87 with E. W. Morley confirmed the independence of the velocity of light from that of the earth. These studies constituted the experimental foundation of the special theory of relativity. In his experiment Michelson used an interferometer he invented, with which he measured the spectral lines of different elements in 1892-93. He proposed that the wavelength of the red line of cadmium be taken as the standard of length. Michelson also constructed a spectral instrument with a super-high resolution. He devoted the last years of his life to the determination of the angular diameters of stars using a stellar interferometer he built for the purpose. Michelson was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1907 for the optical instruments he designed and built and for the studies he conducted with them.


“On the Relative Motion of the Earth and the Lumineferous Ether.” American Journal of Science, 1887, vol. 34, pp. 333-45. (With E. W. Morley.)
Light Waves and Their Uses. Chicago, 1903.
In Russian translation:
Svetovye volny i ikh primeneniia, 2nd ed. Moscow-Leningrad, 1934.
Issledovaniia po optike. Moscow-Leningrad, 1928.


Hale, G. E. Nauchnye raboty A. A. Maikel’sona (1852-1931). Edited by V. V. Fedynskii. No place, 1932. (Translated from English.)
Jaffe, B. Maikel’son i skorost’ sveta. Moscow, 1963. (Translated from English).