BOARD OF REGENTS
THE OPERATIONS, EXPENDITURES, AND CONDITION OF THE INSTITUTION
GOVERNMENT PRINTING OFFICE. 1890.
MICHELSON's RECENT RESEARCHES ON LIGHT.*
By Joseph Lovering, President.
For many generations it was assumed that no sensible time was taken by light in moving over the largest distances. The velocity of sound was found by noting the time which elapsed between seeing the flash and hearing the report of an explosion. It was only in the vast spaces of astronomy that distances existed large enough to unmask the finite velocity of light, and, in extreme cases, to make it seem even to loiter on its way.
The satellites of Jupiter were discovered by Galileo in 1610; and the eclipses of these satellites by the shadow of Jupiter became an interesting subject of observation. It was soon noticed that the interval between successive eclipses of the same satellite was shorter when the earth was approaching Jupiter, and longer when the earth was receding from Jupiter. The change of pitch in the whistle of a locomotive, under similar motions, would suggest to the modern mind an easy explanation. A Danish astronomer, Römer, without the help of this analogy, deciphered the problem in astronomy. The eclipse was telegraphed to the observer by a ray of light, and the news was hastened or delayed in proportion to the distance from which it came. In this way it was discovered that light took about eighteen minutes to run over the diameter of the earth’s orbit. This discovery was published by Römer in the Memoirs of the French Academy in 1675. The mathematical astronomer Delambre, from a discussion of one thousand of these eclipses observed between 1662 and 1802, found for the velocity of light 193,350 miles a second.
Meanwhile Römer’s method, after fifty years of waiting, had been substantially confirmed in an unexpected quarter. Dr. Bradley, of the Greenwich Observatory, the greatest astronomical observer of his day, was perplexed by certain periodical fluctuations, of small amount, in the position of the stars. Suddenly the explanation was flashed upon him by something he observed while yachting on the River Thames. He noticed that, whenever the boat turned about, the direction of the
*An address delivered before the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, at the meeting of April 10, 1889, when the Rumford medals were presented to Prof. A. A. Michelson. (From the Proceedings of the American Academy; vol. xxiv (n. s. xvi pp. 380-401.)