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In 1907, Albert A. Michelson received the Nobel Prize in Physics, becoming the first American to win the award in the sciences and the first of more than 90 University of Chicago-affiliated scholars to receive the prize. He was recognized for his field-defining work in precise methods of measurement, including the first accurate measurement of the speed of light, which has enabled scientific breakthroughs across multiple fields.


Michelson was brought to UChicago in 1892 to launch its physics department. A founder and second president of the American Physical Society, he recruited some of the world’s leading physicists to join the University, including future Nobel Laureates Robert Millikan and Arthur Holly Compton. His pioneering research included calculating the rigidity of the Earth, estimating the diameter of a distant star, and creating the standard measurement used for the length of a meter. His measurement of the speed of light, calculated in the 1880s with colleague Edward W. Morley, was later used to support Albert Einstein’s special theory of relativity.


Born December 19, 1852, the groundbreaking scientist immigrated to the U.S. from Poland as a child and was appointed to the Naval Academy on the recommendation of President Ulysses S. Grant. He completed post-baccalaureate research at the Universities of Berlin and Heidelberg and the Collège de France and École Polytechnique in Paris. He joined the Case School of Applied Science in Cleveland in 1881, followed by a post at Clark University in 1889 before joining UChicago, where he stayed for the remainder of his career. Michelson died May 9, 1931. In honor of his prolific career, the University of Chicago named its Physics Research Center after him in 2019.

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Founding chair of the Physics Department and first American to win a Nobel Prize in the sciences

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Photo Source: University of Chicago Photographic Archive, [apf6-00086], Hanna Holborn Gray Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

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