Albert Michelson, Nobel Laureate: 1907

Albert Abraham Michelson – Nobel Prize 1907, physics, First American scientist to win the Nobel & Joan Michelson’s great-great uncle

Albert Abraham Michelson (Dec. 19, 1852 – May 9, 1931) was the first American scientist to be awarded the Nobel Prize. He won it in 1907 under the physics rubric, for measuring the speed of light – that is, Albert Michelson is literally the “C” in Albert Einstein’s famous equation E=MC2.

Albert Einstein called Albert Michelson “the father of physics” and said to Albert Michelson at a presentation they did together on January 24, 1931: “It was you who led the physicists into new paths, and through your marvelous experimental work, paved the way for the development of the theory of relativity…Without your work, this theory would be scarcely more than an interesting speculation.”

Albert Michelson attended the United States Naval Academy (the Academy) upon special appointment to it by then-President Grant – after multiple tries and rejections due to a combination of antisemitism and lack of political connections. He graduated in 1873, and became an instructor in physics and chemistry there after two years serving in the West Indies. The science building there now bears his name, Michelson Hall and the plaza in front of it has disks showing in part how he measured the speed of light.

He measured the speed of light – using an interferometer he had designed in 1881 to do so – while trying to prove that ether existed. Albert Michelson was using the speed of light as the “K” or constant, thinking the light would slow down going through the ether. Instead, he measured the speed of light with such unprecedented accuracy that he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, becoming the first American to receive it.

Joan Michelson and Associate Dean of the Naval Academy, Dr. Jennifer Waters at Michelson Hall, the U.S. Naval Academy

Michelson resigned from the Navy in 1883 to become a Professor of Physics in the Case School of Applied Science (now Case Western Reserve) in Cleveland, Ohio, then taught physics at Clark University in Massachusetts. In 1892, he became Professor of Physics and the first Head of Department at the then-new University of Chicago, and the physics building now bears his name. (He rejoined the Navy during WWI, invented the echelon spectroscope, and during his wartime service in the Navy he developed devices for naval use, including a rangefinder which was adapted as part of U.S. Navy equipment. He resigned the Navy in 1929.)

Albert Michelson was President of the American Physical Society (1900), the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1910-1911), and the National Academy of Sciences (1923-1927). He was also a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, the Royal Society of London and the Optical Society, and an Associate of l’Académie Française.

In addition to the Nobel Prize, the many awards he received include: the Copley Medal (Royal Society), 1907; Draper Medal (National Academy of Sciences), 1916; Franklin Medal (Franklin Institute) and the Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society, 1923; and the Duddell Medal (Physical Society), 1929.

He was also a painter, composer and billiards player.