“… it does not exceed the precision of an upholsterer”

—Charles S. Peirce (1908)

 Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914) was exaggerating somewhat. But when it came to metrological matters, Peirce (pronounced ) knew what he was talking about. Best known as a logician, mathematician, and America’s most original philosopher (a founder of the philosophical school known as pragmatism), he was also a leading scientist. Peirce made precision measurements, and improved techniques for making them. His work helped remove American metrology from under the British shadow and usher in an American tradition.

Peirce was the first to experimentally tie a unit, the meter, to an absolute standard, the wavelength of a spectral line. For several reasons, that contribution has not received much attention. First, he never finished it to his satisfaction and left only fragmentary reports in his 12 000 published pages and 80 000 pages of handwritten notes and letters—mostly on logic, mathematics, science, and philosophy. Second, Peirce’s idea was almost immediately taken up and significantly improved by Albert Michelson, using the interferometer that he and Edward Morley had built to measure ether drift. Finally, Peirce’s chaotic professional and personal life has hindered a comprehensive assessment of his contributions….

—So begins Robert Crease‘s word portrait “Charles Sanders Peirce and the first absolute measurement standard“, in Physics Today. This photo shows Peirce:

peirce

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