Fahrenheit invented the first truly accurate thermometer using mercury instead of alcohol and water mixtures. In the laboratory, he used his invention todevelop the first temperature scale precise enough to become a worldwide standard.
The eldest of five children born to a wealthy merchant, Fahrenheit was in Danzig (Gdansk), Poland. When he was fifteen his parents died suddenly, and he was sent to Amsterdam to study business. Instead of pursuing this trade, Fahrenheit became interested in the growing field of scientific instruments and their construction. Sometime around 1707 he began to wander the European countryside, visiting instrument makers in Germany, Denmark, and elsewhere, learning their skills. He began constructing his own thermometers in 1714, and it was in these that he used mercury for the first time.
Previous thermometers, such as those constructed by Galileo and Guillaume Amontons, used combinations of alcohol and water; as the temperature rose, the alcohol would expand and the level within the thermometer would increase. These thermometers were not particularly accurate, however, since they were too easily thrown off by changing air pressure. The key to Fahrenheit's thermometer was a new method for cleaning mercury that enabled it to rise and fall within the tube without sticking to the sides. Mercury was an ideal substance forreading temperatures since it expanded at a more constant rate than alcoholand is able to be read at much higher and lower temperatures.
The next important step in the development of a standard temperature scale was the choosing of fixed high and low points. It was common in the early eighteenth century to choose as the high point the temperature of the body, and asthe low point the freezing temperature of an ice-and-salt mixture--then believed to be the coldest temperature achievable in the laboratory. These were the points chosen by Claus Roemer, a German scientist whom Fahrenheit visitedin 1701. Roemer's scale placed blood temperature at 22.5° and the freezing point of pure water at 7.5 °. When Fahrenheit graduated his own scale he emulated Roemer's fixed points; however, with the improved accuracy of a mercury thermometer, he was able to split each degree into four, making the freezing point of water 30° and the temperature of the human body 90°. In 1717 he moved his points to 32° and 96° in order to eliminate fractions.
These points remained fixed for several years, during which time Fahrenheit performed extensive research on the freezing and boiling points of water. He found that the boiling point was constant, but that it could be changed as atmospheric pressure was decreased (such as by increasing elevation to many thousand feet above sea level). He placed the boiling point of water at 212°,a figure that was actually several degrees too low. After Fahrenheit's deathscientists chose to adopt this temperature as the boiling point of water andto shift the scale slightly to accommodate the change. With 212° as theboiling point of water and 32° as the freezing point, the new normal temperature for the human body became 98.6°.
In 1742 Fahrenheit was admitted to the British Royal Society despite having had no formal scientific training and having published just one collection ofresearch papers.