The man who inspired Einstein

February 08, 1995|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,Sun Staff Writer

On a spring day in 1878, a young Naval Academy physics instructor took his students from the confines of the lecture hall and assembled them along the banks of the Severn River. He began to set up an experiment for measuring the speed of light.

But what Albert A. Michelson, then 26, achieved was nothing short of revolutionary. He set a measurement that would stand for 45 years and began work that would lead to Albert Einstein's theory of relativity.

Michelson, who had graduated from the academy only five years earlier, set up a revolving mirror at one end of the sea wall and a stationary mirror 500 feet away, along with a heliostat, a lens and a tuning fork. He used the distance between the mirrors and the revolving mirror's speed to calculate the velocity of the stream of light at 186,508 miles per second.

The experiment and later ones "led the physicists into new paths and through experimental work paved the way for the development of the theory of relativity," Einstein told Michelson at a dinner at the California Institute of Technology in 1931.

"I merely meant to demonstrate the method," Michelson said years after his experiments at the Naval Academy. "Very much to my surprise . . . we were measuring the speed of light with considerably greater accuracy than anybody had measured it before."

The experiment at the Naval Academy "kind of inspired him," said Michelson's granddaughter, Dody Orendurff of Portland, Ore.

It spurred other experiments and discoveries, including the diameter of a star and the "ether drift" experiment, the other block on which Einstein built his theory of relativity. That experiment was considered a flop at first.

Most 19th century scientists, including Michelson, believed that

light traveled along the "luminiferous ether" -- much as sound travels on airwaves -- and that its speed could vary by going against the ether.

Michelson's 1887 experiments with scientist Edward Morley at the Case Institute in Cleveland kept showing that the speed of light never changed.

Michelson considered it a failure, suffered a nervous breakdown and refused for nearly a year to discuss the findings with his colleagues.

Eventually, the tests left little doubt that the "ether drift" did not exist and that the speed of light was a constant.

For that and other work, Michelson became the first American to win the Nobel Prize in physics, in 1907.

On a practical level, the discovery led to the new physics that would one day usher in a world of computers, lasers and biotechnology.


The man whose name adorns the physics and chemistry hall at the academy, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, almost wasn't accepted at Annapolis.

The son of Polish-Jewish immigrants who settled in the rough mining town of Murphy's Camp, Calif., in 1854, Albert Michelson scored high on the academy's entrance exam. But he lost out in zTC 1869 to the son of a Civil War amputee.

In an effort to gain an at-large appointment from President Ulysses S. Grant, the 16-year-old traveled by train to Washington. He got an interview with the president, who added one more appointment, even though all 10 slots were filled.

Known as "Mike" at the academy, the midshipman with the jet black hair and piercing eyes excelled in science. By his senior year he was first in his class in optics and acoustics and second in heat and climatology.

"Sometimes he was asked to figure out the problem when he didn't study. He got up at the blackboard and figured it out his own way," Mrs. Orendurff said.

He concentrated on such problems at the expense of his naval courses. And he bridled at the school's rigidity, standing third from the bottom one year in discipline. Midshipman Michelson compiled 192 demerits at the academy, from "laughing on guard" on Dec. 1, 1869, to "whistling in corridor" on Feb. 25, 1871 to "gross inattention at recitation" on Jan. 17, 1872.

He graduated ninth of 29 in the Class of 1873.

"If you'll give less attention to those scientific things and more to your naval gunnery," Commodore John L. Worden, the academy's superintendent, told him sternly, "there might come a time when you would know enough to be of some use to your country."


After two years of sea duty in the North Atlantic, Ensign Michelson returned to the academy, where he could concentrate on his scientific work, particularly investigations into the speed of light. He remained there until 1880, leaving for a variety of teaching posts and experiments that soon brought him world fame.

Besides the celebrated "ether drift" experiment, he also determined the exact length of an international meter and, during World War I, helped make battleship guns more accurate with his range finder.

After the war, Michelson determined that the star Betelgeuse was 240 million miles in diameter. That landed him on the front page of the New York Times in December 1920 with the headline: "Michelson Measures Colossus of the Skies."

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