Who invented the Richter scale? Or the Fahrenheit scale? This sounds like a “Who’s buried in Grant’s tomb?” joke, but it’s no joke. People named Richter, Doppler, Fahrenheit and Celsius really did exist, and they invented devices to help people measure heat, cold and the weather.
Fahrenheit and Celsius lived mostly during the 1700’s; Doppler lived during the 1800s; and Richter lived during the 1900s. You know what they invented because they became household names, so here’s the scoop on each inventor.
PHYSICIST GABRIEL FAHRENHEIT (1686-1736) was born in Danzig, Poland, which is now Gdansk. He invented the first mercury thermometer in 1714, and then developed the first accurate thermometer 10 years later. Along with his improved thermometer, Fahrenheit introduced the temperature scale that bears his name. At the time, there were already 19 other temperature scales being used.
Besides determining that water boils at 212 degrees and freezes at 32 degrees, Fahrenheit discovered that every liquid has its own unique boiling point. Americans use the Fahrenheit scale, but people who live in countries that use the metric system use the Celsius scale.
ASTRONOMY PROFESSOR ANDERS CELSIUS (1701-1744) was born in Uppsala, Sweden. He built what was originally known as the Centigrade scale in 1742 and named his scale – which contained 100 degrees, or steps – the Centigrade scale because the word “centi” means “hundred” and “grade” means “steps” in Latin.
Celsius figured that the point at which water freezes must be the same temperature at which snow melts. He would often stick a mercury thermometer (which Fahrenheit had invented earlier) in the snow and measure the temperature at which the snow melted.
Oddly enough, his original scale showed zero degrees as the boiling point of water and 100 degrees as the freezing point. The scale was later reversed the following year so that zero degrees became known as the freezing point and 100 degrees as the boiling point. The name of his scale was changed from Centigrade to Celsius in 1948.
PHYSICIST CHRISTIAN DOPPLER (1803-1853) was born in Salzberg, Austria. You’re probably familiar with the term “Doppler radar” because the weatherman uses it on the weather reports.
In 1842, Doppler explained the “Doppler effect,” which can be understood easily by noticing the difference in the sound of a train’s whistle (or a police siren, ambulance, etc.) as it moves farther away – the pitch increases as the vehicle moves toward you and decreases as it moves away from you. This was later shown to work with light as well. Today, Doppler radar is used to help predict the weather because it can see the winds inside of storms, making it helpful in locating and predicting the arrival of tornadoes.
SEISMOLOGIST CHARLES RICHTER (1900 – 1985) was born in Hamilton, Ohio. His Richter scale measures the height of the seismic waves released during an earthquake. One misconception that people have regarding the Richter scale is that it’s actually an instrument or device. The Richter scale is actually a series of tables and charts that correlate the scale to the seismogram readings; the machine that shows the results is called a seismograph.
The numbers on the Richter scale measure the earthquake in 10-fold units, meaning that an earthquake that registers a five is 10 times more powerful than one that registers a four, one that registers a four is 10 times more powerful than one that registers a three, and so on.
Another misconception about the Richter scale is that 10 is the highest possible measure of an earthquake. In reality, the Richter scale is an open-ended scale, and while it is possible to hit a 10, it has never happened since the scale was first introduced in 1935. The Richter scale has also been used to measure the strength of quakes on the moon and Mars.
And that pretty much covers it!

© 2009 Paul Niemann. This story is part of the Invention Mysteries series by author Paul Niemann. For more information, visit www.InventionMysteries.com.

Activity guide for students
1. Why were these scales important?
2. Without these scales, how would the world be different?
3. Could anyone have invented these scales, or did it take someone special like the inventors in the story?

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