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thermocouple: see thermometer; thermoelectricity.
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A device in which the temperature difference between the ends of a pair of dissimilar metal wires is deduced from a measurement of the difference in the thermoelectric potentials developed along the wires. The presence of a temperature gradient in a metal or alloy leads to an electric potential gradient being set up along the temperature gradient. This thermoelectric potential gradient is proportional to the temperature gradient and varies from metal to metal. It is the fact that the thermoelectric emf is different in different metals and alloys for the same temperature gradient that allows the effect to be used for the measurement of temperature.

The basic circuit of a thermocouple is shown in the illustration. The thermocouple wires, made of different metals or alloys A and B, are joined together at one end H, called the hot (or measuring) junction, at a temperature T1. The other ends, CA and CB (the cold or reference junctions), are maintained at a constant reference temperature T0, usually but not necessarily 32°F (0°C). From the cold junctions, wires, usually of copper, lead to a voltmeter V at room temperature Tr. Due to the thermoelectric potential gradients being different along the wires A and B, there exists a potential difference between CA and CB. This can be measured by the voltmeter, provided that CA and CB are at the same temperature and that the lead wires between CA and V and CB and V are identical (or that V is at the temperature T0, which is unusual). Such a thermocouple will produce a thermoelectric emf between CA and CB which depends only upon the temperature difference T1 - T0. See Temperature measurement, Thermoelectricity

Basic circuit of a thermocoupleenlarge picture
Basic circuit of a thermocouple
Letter designations and compositions for standardized thermocouples*
Type designation Materials
B Platinum-30% rhodium/platinum-6% rhodium
E Nickel-chromium alloy/a copper-nickel alloy
J Iron/another slightly different copper-nickel alloy
K Nickel-chromium alloy/nickel-aluminum alloy
R Platinum-13% rhodium/platinum
S Platinum-10% rhodium/platinum
T Copper/a copper-nickel alloy
*After T. J. Quinn, Temperature, Academic Press, 1983.

A large number of pure metal and alloy combinations have been studied as thermocouples, and the seven most widely used are listed in the table. The thermocouples in the table together cover the temperature range from about -420°F (-250°C or 20 K) to about 3300°F (1800°C). The most accurate and reproducible are the platinum/rhodium thermocouples, types R and S, while the most widely used industrial thermocouples are probably types K, T, and E.

McGraw-Hill Concise Encyclopedia of Physics. © 2002 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a temperature sensor consisting of two unlike electrically conductive elements—usually metal conductors but occasionally semiconductors—that are joined to one another. A thermocouple makes use of the Seebeck effect. If the junctions of the conducting elements (often called thermoelectrodes) are at different temperatures, a thermal electromotive force (emf) is generated in the circuit. The magnitude of the emf is unambiguously determined by the hot and cold terminal temperatures and the composition of the electrodes.

Thermocouples are used in an extremely wide temperature range (see Table 1). The emf of a thermocouple using metal conductors is usually 5–60 millivolts. The accuracy of temperature indication is usually several degrees K; some thermocouples attain an accuracy of ~0.01°K. The emf’s of semiconductor thermocouples may be an order of magnitude higher, but they are quite unstable.

Table 1. Operating temperature ranges of some types of thermocouple
Positive elementNegative elementTemperatures (°K)
Gold-iron alloyCopper or Chromel4–270
Platinized rhodiumPlatinum250–1900

Thermocouples are used in temperature measurement equipment and in various automatic control and monitoring systems. A thermoelectric thermometer is produced by combining a thermocouple with an electrical measurement instrument, such as a millivoltmeter or potentiometer. The measurement instrument is connected to the ends of the thermoelectrodes or to a break in one of the electrodes. When making a temperature measurement, one of the junctions must be maintained at a reference temperature, usually 273°K.

Thermocouples can be divided into a number of types, depending on their design and purpose. They may be of the submersible or surface type, and they may be unjacketed or with an ordinary, explosion-proof, moisture-proof, or other jacket, which may be sealed or unsealed. In addition, they may be shock-resistant or vibration-resistant and stationary or portable.


Sosnovskii, A. G., and N. I. Stoliarova. Izmerenie temperatur. Moscow, 1970.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


A device consisting basically of two dissimilar conductors joined together at their ends; the thermoelectric voltage developed between the two junctions is proportional to the temperature difference between the junctions, so the device can be used to measure the temperature of one of the junctions when the other is held at a fixed, known temperature, or to convert radiant energy into electric energy.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


A device consisting of two junctions of two dissimilar metals, in an electric circuit; when the two junctions are at different temperatures, a voltage is generated by the device; used for measuring temperature.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Architecture and Construction. Copyright © 2003 by McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


A device that converts thermal energy directly into electrical energy. In its basic form, it consists of two dissimilar metallic electrical conductors connected in a closed loop. Each junction forms a thermocouple. If the junctions are at different temperatures, an electrical potential difference proportional to the temperature difference will exist in the circuit; the value of the potential generated is different for various combinations of materials. This potential difference is indicated as temperature.
An Illustrated Dictionary of Aviation Copyright © 2005 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. All rights reserved


1. a device for measuring temperature consisting of a pair of wires of different metals or semiconductors joined at both ends. One junction is at the temperature to be measured, the second at a fixed temperature. The electromotive force generated depends upon the temperature difference
2. a similar device with only one junction between two dissimilar metals or semiconductors
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005