Michelson A. A. Light waves and their uses (1903)

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LiCxHT Waves as Standards of Length


between the point of suspension and the center of gravity of the spherical bob. This distance can be measured to a very fair degree of accuracy. Unfortunately the different observations vary among themselves by quantities even greater than the errors of the diffraction method.

The second of these proposed standards was the circumference of the earth measured along a meridian, as it was believed that this distance is probably invariable. There are, however, certain variations in the circumference of the earth, for we know that the earth must be gradually cooling and contracting. The change thus produced is probably exceedingly small, so that the errors in measuring this circumference would not be due so much to this cause as to others inherent to the method of measuring the distance itself. For suppose we determine the latitude of two places, one 45° north of the equator and one 45° south. The difference in latitude of these places can be determined with astronomical precision. The distance between the places is one-fourth of the entire circumference of the earth. This distance must be measured by a system of tri-angulation— a process which is enormously expensive and requires considerable time and labor; and it is found that the results of these measurements vary among themselves by a quantity even greater than do those reached with the pendulum. So that none of these three methods is capable of furnishing an absolute standard of length.

While it was intended that one meter should be the one forty-millionth of the earth’s circumference, in consequence of these variations it was decided that the standard meter should be defined as the arbitrary distance between two lines ruled on a metal bar a little over a meter long, made of an alloy of platinum and irridium. It was made of these two substances principally on account of hardness and durability. In order to bring the metal as nearly as possible


Light Waves and Their Uses

to what was termed its “ permanent condition,” these bars were subjected to all sorts of treatment and maltreatment. The originals were cast and recast a great many times, and afterward they were cooled—a process which took several months.

After such treatment it is believed that the alteration in length of these bars will be exceedingly small, if anything at all. But, as a matter of fact, it is practically impossible to determine such small alterations, because, while there have been a number of copies made from this fundamental standard, these copies are all made of the same metal as the original; hence, if there were any change in the original, there would probably be similar changes in all the copies simultaneously, and it would therefore be impossible to detect the change. The extreme variation, however, must be of the order of one-thousandth of a millimeter or less in the whole distance of 1,000 millimeters.

The question rightly arises then: Why require any other standard, since this is known to be so accurate? The answer is that the requirements of scientific measurement are growing more and more rigorous every year. A hundred years ago a measurement made to within oue-thousandth of an inch was considered rather phenomenal. Now it is one of the modern requirements in the most accurate machine work. At present a few measurements are relied upon to within one ten-thousandth of an inch. There are cases in which an accuracy of one-milliontli of an inch has been attained, and it is even possible to detect differences of one five-millionth of an inch. Past experience indicates that we are merely anticipating the requirements of the not too distant future in producing means for the determination of such small quantities. A«min, in order that the results of scientific work already

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completed, or shortly to be completed, may be compared