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Experimental Determination of the Velocity of Light Made at the U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis   By: (1852-1931)

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Experimental Determination of the Velocity of Light

Made at the U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis.


Albert A. Michelson, Master U.S. Navy.


The probability that the most accurate method of determining the solar parallax now available is that resting on the measurement of the velocity of light, has led to the acceptance of the following paper as one of the series having in view the increase of our knowledge of the celestial motions. The researches described in it, having been made at the United States Naval Academy, though at private expense, were reported to the Honorable Secretary of the Navy, and referred by him to this Office. At the suggestion of the writer, the paper was reconstructed with a fuller general discussion of the processes, and with the omission of some of the details of individual experiments.

To prevent a possible confusion of this determination of the velocity of light with another now in progress under official auspices, it may be stated that the credit and responsibility for the present paper rests with Master Michelson.

Simon Newcomb, Professor, U.S. Navy , Superintendent Nautical Almanac .

Nautical Almanac Office, Bureau of Navigation, Navy Department, Washington, February 20, 1880.

Table Of Contents.

Introduction Theory of the New Method Arrangement and Description of Apparatus Determination of the Constants The Formulæ Observations Separate results of Groups of Observations Discussion of Errors Objections Considered Postscript

Experimental Determination of the Velocity of Light.

By Albert A. Michelson, Master, U.S.N.


In Cornu's elaborate memoir upon the determination of the velocity of light, several objections are made to the plan followed by Foucault, which will be considered in the latter part of this work. It may, however, be stated that the most important among these was that the deflection was too small to be measured with the required degree of accuracy. In order to employ this method, therefore, it was absolutely necessary that the deflection should be increased.

In November, 1877, a modification of Foucault's arrangement suggested itself, by which this result could be accomplished. Between this time and March of the following year a number of preliminary experiments were performed in order to familiarize myself with the optical arrangements. The first experiment tried with the revolving mirror produced a deflection considerably greater than that obtained by Foucault. Thus far the only apparatus used was such as could be adapted from the apparatus in the laboratory of the Naval Academy.

At the expense of $10 a revolving mirror was made, which could execute 128 turns per second. The apparatus was installed in May, 1878, at the laboratory. The distance used was 500 feet, and the deflection was about twenty times that obtained by Foucault.[1]

[Footnote 1: See Proc. Am. Assoc. Adv. Science, Saint Louis meeting.]

These experiments, made with very crude apparatus and under great difficulties, gave the following table of results for the velocity of light in miles per second:

186730 188820 186330 185330 187900 184500 186770 185000 185800 187940 Mean 186500 ± 300 miles per second, or 300140 kilometers per second.

In the following July the sum of $2,000 was placed at my disposal by a private gentleman for carrying out these experiments on a large scale. Before ordering any of the instruments, however, it was necessary to find whether or not it was practicable to use a large distance. With a distance (between the revolving and the fixed mirror) of 500 feet, in the preliminary experiments, the field of light in the eye piece was somewhat limited, and there was considerable indistinctness in the image, due to atmospheric disturbances.

Accordingly, the same lens (39 feet focus) was employed, being placed, together with the other pieces of apparatus, along the north sea wall of the Academy grounds, the distance being about 2,000 feet... Continue reading book >>

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