Albert Abraham Michelson: "A Pole - well up in Arithmetic"

Portrait painted by Jan Suliński, an artist from Strzelno, Poland

By Lidia Smentek and Tomasz Kardaś

In the January issue of the APS News (vol. 17, number 1) a correction to the biography of Albert Abraham Michelson was published as a Letter to the Editor. It resulted from a fact mistakenly given in the article “November, 1887: Michelson and Morley report their failure to detect the luminescent ether” published in APS News, vol. 16, No. 10 – November 2007. Since an interesting aspect of the history of Michelson’s Polish roots was omitted in the published letter, here we present some details and photographs that document a tribute being paid to Michelson by his fellow countrymen in Poland.

A Pole - well up in Arithmetic” - one of the examiners wrote on the record of the oral exam of Albert Abraham Michelson, who took the entrance examinations to the Naval Academy in 1869. Indeed, Albert Abraham Michelson was born on December 19, 1852 in Strzelno, a small and very old Polish town, which at that time was occupied by Prussia as a consequence of the partition of Poland. He was born neither in Germany, as stated in the APS article, nor in Prussia, as is commonly written in his biographies on the Internet. He was born to a Jewish-Polish family; his father was a Jewish merchant from the nearby town of Inowrocław, and his mother, Rozalia Przyłubska, was the daughter of a Polish merchant from the same town. In the Twelfth U. S. Census taken in 1900 it is stated that Albert Michelson, head of the family, and his father and mother, all were born in Poland (see below).

censusCopy of the document the Twelfth U. S. Census from 1900 where it is stated that Michelson, his father and mother were born in Poland (courtesy of the A. A. Michelson Museum, Strzelno, Poland)

Although Michelson lived almost the whole life in the States (he arrived together with the parents on July 19, 1856), always he was proud of his Polish roots; even he was saying that he is such a hard worker, because this is a feature of Polish people. Many years after his death his daughter, Dorothy Michelson-Stevens (Livingston), asked the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń (birthplace of Copernicus, thirty miles from Strzelno) to identify the place of her father’s birth, the name of which she knew only in a misspelled version. In the local archives in Strzelno it was found that Michelson indeed was born there. This fact is documented by a copy of a hand written note, which is an announcement of the birth of a son placed by the father, Samuel Michelson:


This was the reason that the members of the Toruń chapter of the Polish Physical Society decided to commemorate this finding by funding a plaque, which written in Polish states:

plaque“In this town, on December 19, 1852, Albert Abraham Michelson was born; Professor of the University of Chicago, Nobel Prize Laureate. With his famous experiments on the velocity of light he started a new era of development of physics. This plaque, which salutes this great physicist, was funded by the Polish Physical Society”.

The dedication of the plaque, which is built into the wall of a house on Market Square in Strzelno, took place on September 4th, 1963. The ceremony was attended by Michelson’s daughter and a representative of the American Embassy in Warsaw. The Mayor of Strzelno, in order to confirm the words that “Strzelno is proud of her son”, on behalf of the city council, named one of the streets in the town Michelson Street. This was an historical event for the local community, for the students from all the schools in the vicinity of Strzelno, and for the physicists from Copernicus University in Toruń. It is recorded in the photograph where Michelson’s daughter addresses the audience gathered in the main square in Strzelno 1


In the picture below2 Professor Jabłoński, the founder of the Physics Department of Nicolaus Copernicus University, and the author of the famous “Jabłoński diagram” of luminescence, dedicates the plaque (the lady in the hat is Michelson’s daughter),

Professor Jabłoński

The story about this tribute to Albert Abraham Michelson in Strzelno is translated from the memoirs and memories written by Danuta Jabłońska-Frąckowiak2, daughter of Professor Jabłoński, who is also a Professor of Physics, and who was a witness to this historical event. In fact, she was the one who arranged with the American Embassy in Warsaw the music of the American National Anthem for the brass band of the local Volunteer Fire Station to play during the ceremony.

Forty-five years have passed since that celebration; during this time Michelson’s fellow countrymen did not forget about him and his outstanding achievements. Indeed, to commemorate this famous son of Strzelno, various documents, copies of his papers and publications about him were collected together with the photographs, not to mention scientific sessions arranged to present Michelson’s achievements to the auditoria at various levels of advancement and knowledge of physics.

Poster of Michelson’s Days organized in Strzelno in December, 12-19, 2007; designed and printed by Krzysztof Starczewski, a graduate from a local high school Poster of Michelson’s Days organized in Strzelno in December, 12-19, 2007; designed and printed by Krzysztof Starczewski, a graduate from a local high school
In December 2007 there was a special celebration organized in Strzelno (poster right). For almost a week the citizens of Strzelno of all generations and various professions celebrated the 155th anniversary of Michelson’s birth, the 120th anniversary of the famous Michelson-Morley experiment, and the 100th anniversary of Nobel Prize awarded for the first time to an American Physicist; in fact, it should be said that it was awarded to a Polish-born American Physicist!

The program of these Michelson’s Days was overwhelming: various lectures and panel discussions, and to mention just one, “A. A. Michelson – a private person and scientist”; opening of an exhibition “Michelson – on the 100th anniversary of his Nobel Prize”, a dedication to his name of the physics laboratory in the local high school (a photograph below) and the grand opening of a museum with a permanent exhibition of the memorabilia collected over the years.

Michelson’s physics laboratory in the high school in Strzelno
Michelson’s physics laboratory in the high school in Strzelno
The photographs of the artistic program of the Michelson’s Days celebrated in Strzelno in December 2007; in the lower left corner there is Tomasz Kardaś, the spiritus movens of the commemoration of Michelson and his achievements
The photographs of the artistic program of the Michelson’s Days celebrated in Strzelno in December 2007; in the lower left corner there is Tomasz Kardaś, the spiritus movens of the commemoration of Michelson and his achievements
There was also a competition for the students of primary schools in the district on the knowledge about Michelson’s achievements. Knowing Michelson’s passion for sport, and for billiards in particular, remembering also his artistic talents it was impossible not to organize a billiards tournament and an exhibition of the drawings made by students, supplemented by a performance of some episodes of his life. Michelson’s love for music was represented by the concert given by the same band of the Volunteer Fire Station as in 1963, but now with musicians of a new generation. In the photograph below the collage of various artistic performances of this celebration is presented. The representatives of the youngest generation of Strzelno citizens, the children from a kindergarten dressed in folk dresses of the district, were reciting poems about Michelson written by Lech Gierba, one of the school teachers.

Michelson’s words “My greatest inspiration is a challenge to attempt the impossible are indeed the inspiration for many in Strzelno; even small children in their tasks and work on the way to excellence are trying to follow their countryman’s example.

In general, when looking back at the history of science, two kinds of scientists are distinguished. There are the revolutionary scientists, who are the giants on whose shoulders the others are standing, as Isaac Newton defined them in his letter to Robert Hook written in 1676; Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler, Sir Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Maria Skłodowska-Curie... There are also evolutionary scientists, who due to their knowledge, patience and persistency are the authors of huge jumps in the development of science; this list for sure contains the name of Albert Abraham Michelson.

W. T. Vollmann in his interesting book Uncentering the Earth3 introduced Copernicus by a short rhymed poem:

He was a scholar of Polish birth
Who stopped the Sun and moved the Earth

It took more than three centuries for another Polish scholar to be born with a Renaissance mind and spirit (just 30 miles from Copernicus’ birthplace) to continue the concept of heliocentric revolution. The uncentered and moving Earth was the main condition for the Michelson-Morley experiment that, apart from the great dissappointment of its performers, provided a new outlook on many physical issues. In fact, as written on the Web page of the Optics Institute of Southern California:

“While Michelson and Morley were testing the "ether drift," Einstein had begun to speak of clocks that moved backward, mass that was not constant and light made up of things called "photons." For scientists, these heresies were as profound as those of Copernicus, the first to suggest that the earth was an orbiting planet, and not the center of the universe”.

Fortunately, at the end of 19th and the beginning of 20th century, the three century old Heliocentric System was established well enough in the minds of the scientists, that the fiasco of the Michelson-Morley experiment, (in its authors’ opinion) was not interpreted as an evidence that ...the Earth is still, but rather that the wind of ether does not exist! However, Copernicus, the GIANT recognized by all, in Book I, chapter 8 of De Revolutionibus Orbium Celestium (translation by A. M. Duncan4) wrote the words that might give support to those who are skeptical about the non-existence of ether5:

“The air which is nearest to the Earth will appear still, and objects suspended in it will be set in motion only by wind or some other impulse this way or that. For what is the difference between a wind in the air and a wave on the sea?”

Albert Abraham Michelson to the very end of his life, deep down in his soul, was not completely convinced that ether indeed does not exist.

Lidia Smentek
APS FIP, Member-at-Large
Nicolaus Copernicus University, Toruń, Poland
Vanderbilt University, Nashville

Tomasz Kardaś
Physics Teacher, retired
Organizer and custodian of the Albert Abraham Michelson Museum
and of A. A. Michelson’s Physics Laboratory
Strzelno, Poland

1. Photograph from a private collection of Emanuel Walentynowicz
2. Danuta Jabłońska-Frąckowiak, “Na Uniwersytecie Mikołaja Kopernika w latach 1946-1966”, Wyd. Uniwersytetu Mikołaja Kopernika, Toruń, 2006; pages 96/97.
3. W. T. Vollmann, “Uncentering the Earth”
4. A. M. Duncan, “On the revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres”, Newton Abbot 1976.
5. G. Granek, “Poincaré’s Ether: A. Why did Poincaré retain the ether?”, Apeiron, 8 (1), January 2001.