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Gabriel Fahrenheit and the thermometer he invented

Poor Merchant to Scientific Fame: The Forgotten Tale of Gabriel Daniel Fahrenheit

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The Fahrenheit temperature scale is especially popular in the USA but it is also found in the Cayman Islands, the Bahamas, Belize, and the Western Pacific. Thus, it may surprise some people to know that the man who created this measurement used on a daily basis was actually born in a city near the Baltic Sea – in Gdańsk, Poland.

Fahrenheit is usually remembered as the researcher who discovered the temperature scale bearing his name, so many people connect his life with the United States of America or perhaps the UK. However, Fahrenheit never went to America, and he first visited the UK in 1724. He was born in a city which belonged to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and he never even left Europe. Apart from the famous scale, his best known invention was the mercury-in-glass thermometer.

The Scientist

Gabriel Fahrenheit was born on May 24, 1686 in the Old City of Danizg (now Gdańsk). It was a time when this beautiful Hanseatic League city was thriving due to trade. Danzig was a place where may different cultures had created a unique place on the European map. It was a home for the Germans, Polish, Dutch, and many other nationalities.

Drawing of Gabriel.

Drawing of Gabriel. ( CC BY 4.0 )

Gabriel’s mother, Concordia, was a member of a noble family in Gdańsk – the Schumans. They were famous for their economic skills and creating wonderful carpets, embroideries, etc. Gabriel’s father was Daniel Fahrenheit, a merchant. The future scientist, Gabriel, was the oldest of five surviving children. It is unknown how many of his brothers and sisters died in early childhood.

When Gabriel’s parents died on August 14, 1701 after eating poisonous mushrooms, he couldn't find a place for himself in the city of Danzig. His family was poor and the house was full of hungry children. He didn't want to be a burden to his sisters, so Gabriel decided to travel to Amsterdam and work there as a merchant. In those times, Amsterdam was considered as the best place to train and find good contracts. All of the trade from Danzig to the west was passing through this impressive port.

Fahrenheit's birthplace in Gdańsk (Danzig).

Fahrenheit's birthplace in Gdańsk (Danzig). ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )

During his travels to places like Dresde, Leipzig, Halle, Berlin, Copenhagen, and other cities, Gabriel started to realize his growing interest in natural science. Fahrenheit, who grew up near the seaside, was always interested in changes of the weather and temperature. This passion led him to start studying and experimenting in that field. Finally, in 1717, he had networked enough to be connected with impressive researchers such as Christian Wolff and Gottfried Leibniz, and he began his own research.

Inventions that Changed the World

Fahrenheit found his new home in The Hague, where he started to work as a glassblower. He was making thermometers, barometers, and altimeters. In 1718, he began work as a lecturer of chemistry in Amsterdam. By 1724, he was invited to England, where he became a Fellow of the Royal Society. This honor was given to him after the publication of an article which changed his career.

Street in The Hague by Sybrand van Beest.

Street in The Hague by Sybrand van Beest. ( Public Domain )

Fahrenheit created a few impressive theories and projects which changed the lives of many people.  First of all, in 1724 he published an article where he described a different scale for temperature. It was a revolutionary invention, which changed the way of counting and presenting the temperature. Fahrenheit temperature has a boiling point for water at 212 degrees and its freezing point at 32 degrees.

Gabriel Daniel Fahrenheit.

Gabriel Daniel Fahrenheit. ( Public Domain )

About ten years earlier, Gabriel had constructed a thermometer which supported his work on the temperature scale. The mercury-in-glass thermometer was invented in Amsterdam in 1714. It was one of the most important inventions by Fahrenheit. In 1582, another great scientist, Galileo Galilei was close to creating such an instrument.

This type of thermometer consists of a bulb with mercury inside it that is attached to a glass tube. The volume of the bulb is much bigger than the volume of the mercury, so when the mercury changes size with the temperature, it is easy to see it in the tube. This kind of thermometer is still in use in some places, however the European Union discourages its use due to mercury’s influence on human health.

Fahrenheit also invented an innovative hydrometer - a device used to measure the density of a liquid. He created a hydrometer which was able to float vertically in a cylinder which contained water. The bottom of the device had a weighted bulb and a pan for small weights was located at the top.

Fahrenheit’s Death

The temperature scale by Fahrenheit could have been the most important one of its kind in the 18th century; if in 1742 another scientist, Anders Celsius, hadn’t presented his own scale. But Fahrenheit didn't live to see this event. He died in The Hague on September 16, 1736. Gabriel Fahrenheit was buried at the Kloosterkerk church.

Anders Celsius.

Anders Celsius. ( Public Domain )

Nowadays, Fahrenheit’s face has mostly been forgotten. There is no realistic portrait of Gabriel Daniel Fahrenheit, but his inventions ensure that his surname is remembered. In 2012, a team of Polish researchers created a computer image of Gabriel Fahrenheit’s face based on the photos of his relatives.

For many decades, the people of Gdańsk had forgotten about Gabriel. Only a small plate on the wall of one of the houses in the Old City informed passersby that he was born there. During the last few years, however, the city of Gdańsk has put up a few monuments in his memory - to remind people that the great scientist Gabriel Daniel Fahrenheit grew up on their soil.

Memorial plaque at Fahrenheit's burial site in The Hague.

Memorial plaque at Fahrenheit's burial site in The Hague. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Top image: Gabriel Fahrenheit and the thermometer he invented.

By Natalia Klimczak

References:

E. Cieślak, C. Biernat, Dzieje Gdańska, 1969

Andrzej Januszajtis, Dzieciństwo i młodość Gabriela Daniela Fahrenheita, 2002.

Andrzej Januszajtis, Mr. Fahrenheit, dżentelmen z Gdańska, 2005.

Termometr Fahrenheita, available at:
http://www.rzygacz.webd.pl/index.php?id=43,268,0,0,1,0

Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit: najsłynniejszy w świecie gdańszczanin by Piotr Rowicki, available at:
http://historia.trojmiasto.pl/Daniel-Gabriel-Fahrenheit-najslynniejszy-w-swiecie-gdanszczanin-n57871.html

Comments

I'm reminded of Fahrenheit every time I look at a thermometer or start a batch of wine. Unfortunately, his system of measuring temperature is silly. America really should switch to the metric system, but the incredible whining and crying it would create, would probably split the sky. At least when it is -40F outside, it is also -40C as the two scales coincide at that temperature, although it is a very small solace at that temp.

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