I’m currently working my way through the book The Master of Light: a Biography of Albert A. Michelson (1973), written by one of his daughters, Dorothy Michelson Livingston. I typically find the beginnings of biographies to be rather slow-moving, with some sort of statement like, “There was little to indicate in his/her childhood what a great scientist he/she would become,” but this is definitely not the case for Michelson — his life story is interesting starting pretty much at birth!
I thought I’d share another anecdote from the book that I found fascinating: Michelson’s meeting, at a young age before he was famous, with the President of the United States Ulysses S. Grant!
To set the stage, let me first note that Michelson’s family emigrated from Poland in 1855, fleeing political turmoil and anti-semitic sentiment; Albert was only 3 at the time. After first arriving in New York, they traveled west to participate in the gold rush that had swept California. The Michelsons were not miners themselves, but made a profit selling supplies to others. By 1864, after the Civil War, the mining town Murphy’s Camp was played out, and the family moved to Nevada to join in a silver boom in Carson City.
Albert’s family made sure that he had the best education possible under the circumstances, and they had even sent him to school in San Francisco for a time. By the end of high school, unfortunately, his options for further education were limited. In 1869, he spotted a letter in the newspaper from a Nevada congressman declaring a competition for an open spot as a student in the United States Naval Academy. The competition would be decided by the high score on an examination, and Albert ended up tying for first with two others.
Evidence suggests that political considerations led to him not being chosen; however, it seems a combination of guilt and public outcry led to the congressman writing a letter to recently elected President Ulysses S. Grant asking him to consider making Albert a special appointment to the Academy. Michelson was sent to Washington with a letter of introduction; I’ll let Dorothy tell it from here:
He set off alone across the continent, riding one of the first trains of the transcontinental railway. Only a month before his departure, the Central Pacific had raced the Union Pacific to a rendezvous midway, each trying to see which could build the farthest and fastest, for a prize of vast government land grants and bonds, allotted on a mileage basis. The attention of the nation was focused on this meeting at which the last rail was laid on a tie of California laurel, fastened with a “golden spike,” while the two locomotives faced each other on a single track.
Albert saw the breadth of the country for the first time. Crossing the Continental Divide, the train descended from the Rocky Mountains, scattering great herds of buffalo as it crossed the broad plains. Armed guards were posted on every car because of the danger of an Indian attack or a holdup by bandits.
When Albert announced himself at the White House, President Grant, slumped in his chair, received him and listened with kindness and interest to his story. Drinking had coarsened Grant’s face and rounded his belly so that he no longer looked like the pictures Albert had seen of him as a general charging into battle. But his voice was gentle as he broke the news to Albert that he could not help him, having already filled the ten appointments-at-large that were allotted the President.
Albert concealed his disappointment with difficulty. He thanked the President politely, bowed, and left his office with one of Grant’s naval aides. This officer, admiring the boy’s determination, advised him to go to Annapolis on the chance that a vacancy might occur if one of the President’s ten appointees failed to pass his examination. On his arrival at Annapolis in late June, 1869, Michelson went straight to the office of the Commandant of Midshipmen, Captain Napoleon B. Harrison. He waited three days before he finally was granted an interview, was examined, and then told there was no vacancy. Embittered and discouraged, his money almost gone, he returned to Washington and boarded a train for San Francisco. Just as the train was about to leave, a messenger from the White House came aboard, calling out his name. For the second time, Michelson was taken to see the President, who had been persuaded by Vice Admiral David D. Porter, Superintendent of the Academy, and one of Michelson’s examiners, to make an exception in his case. Brushing regulations aside, Grant gave him the nomination for an eleventh appointment-at-large, which he received on June 28.
Michelson, telling this story in later years, chuckled over beginning his naval career by what he thought was “Grant’s illegal act.” But having once exceeded his quota, Grant went on to appoint two more midshipmen-at-large, a total of thirteen, in 1869.
Michelson went on to show an incredible aptitude for optics at the Naval Academy, and in fact made his first precision measurements of the speed of light as laboratory demonstrations while in Annapolis; these amazing demonstrations led him to international acclaim. It is quite amazing that this career might not have happened except for a literal last-minute intervention by the President!
It’s easy to forget that famous scientists actually lived in a historical era — I would never have imagined that Michelson’s family was involved in the Gold Rush, or had a personal story influenced strongly by the Civil War. Michelson’s middle name — Abraham — was even allegedly given to him in honor of the recently-assassinated President who saved the Union!
If you can find a copy of Dorothy Michelson Livingston’s biography, I can highly recommend it — unless you’re at Davidson College, ’cause I’ve currently got your copy!