By John N. Howard, OPN Contributing Editor
A couple weeks ago, I introduced this blog by talking about OSA Honorary Member Albert Michelson, the first American to win a Nobel Prize in science (in 1907). He won that prize for his improved optical determination of the velocity of light.
For young people starting out in their careers, it can sometimes seem that optics luminaries such as Michelson were simply born to be stars. But, as the following story points out, Michelson had to work hard to make his start. In fact, he walked right into the Oval Office of the White House, and presented a plea directly to President Ulysses S. Grant.
Michelson was born in 1852 in Strelno, Prussia (now Strzelno, Poland). When he was two years old, the family immigrated to America. They stayed a few weeks in New York City with some relatives. But the lure of the California Gold Rush caused Albert’s father, Samuel, to book passage to the West--by boat to Panama, then 50 miles across the Isthmus, and then again by boat to San Francisco.
They proceeded to Murphy’s Camp (about 150 miles east of San Francisco), where Samuel opened a store selling shovels, pick-axes and other supplies to the prospectors. Albert was sent to live with his father’s sister in San Francisco, where he attended the Boys High School, graduating in 1869. Meanwhile, Samuel moved his dry goods store to Virginia City, Nev., where the mining lure was now mostly silver.
The store was not prospering not well enough to think in terms of college for young Albert. In 1869, Samuel saw a notice in the paper announcing that Congressman Fitch of Nevada was authorized to appoint a candidate for the next class at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., U.S.A.
About a dozen young high school graduates applied, and the congressman selected a committee to screen the applicants.The committee eliminated all but Michelson and two others, whom they regarded as tied for first place. The congressman selected young James Blakely, whose family connections were the strongest, and whose father had lost an arm in the Civil War. (In those days, the sympathies of most Californians and Nevadans were almost completely with the Union.)
Albert was very disappointed, but not ready to give up. He bought a ticket to Washington on the transatlantic railroad—which had only been operating for about a year—and made the three-day journey to Washington.
He then presented himself at the White House, telling a young military receptionist: “I want to see the President.” “Do you have an appointment?,” she asked. Albert then showed her his letter stating that he had tied for first place to an appointment to Annapolis, but had just barely missed out. The receptionist let him go on in, followed by a young naval orderly, who remained in the back of the room.
President Grant looked up from some papers he was reading, and then listened as 16-year-old Albert told his story. Albert was a bright, handsome young man, and President Grant also had a son of about the same age. But, he said, there is little he could do; he had already filled the ten appointments-at-large that had been authorized to the White House. Albert left, trying to hide his disappointment. On the way out the young Naval orderly said he should go to Annapolis, just in case any of the approved appointments had failed their entrance exams.
So on Albert went to Annapolis, and asked to see the Superintendent. It was three days before the Superintendant saw him. He was told that there were no vacancies; but the Superintendant asked an examining officer to talk to Albert. After that interview a disappointed Albert returned to Washington, and the next morning boarded the train for the return trip to Nevada.
Just before the train was scheduled to leave, a military orderly walked through the train, calling his name, and brought him back to the White House. The interviewer at Annapolis had sent a message to the White House that Michelson appeared to have genuine talent; and President Grant had relented and approved Albert as an additional appointment!
In later years, Michelson liked to tell that story, and he chuckled that he had begun his career with an “illegal act,” since President Grant made an additional appointment beyond his authorized number.
Optics History, OSA Honorary Members, Physics History