Murphys Master of Light

The sizzling Gold Rush camp of Murphys played host to President Grant, Mark Twain and Black Bart. And to an even more famous chap – in some circles – a young, inquisitive lad who literally changed the scientific world.

Albert Michelson, an active Murphys resident of the 1850s and 1860s, became the first to accurately measure the speed of light and the first American to win a Nobel Prize for Science.

He even inspired Albert Einstein, who told Michelson in 1931: “It was you who led the physicists into new paths and through your marvelous experimental work, paved the way for the development of the Theory of Relativity.”

Nice comments for a fellow who spent many of his young developmental years studying and sketching the Murphys area.

Was it the light filtering down from Murphys’ charming locust and elm trees that first caught 4-year-old Albert’s eye?

When the family went on Sunday picnics among the nearby giant sequoias – which spotlighted rays of light through their branches – did Albert gain his first sense of wonder that turned into a lifelong passion?

“Could have been,” said Palmer Van Dyke, who studied physics at USC and works as a docent at the Old Timers Museum on Murphys’ Main Street. “There’s a dazzling variety of light in this area that may have caused a sense of wonder in Albert’s curious mind. Even the way it filters through the trees and sparkles on the water in the creek could have attracted his interest.” Albert was born in Poland (1852) but grew up in the bustling diggings (east of Angels Camp on Highway 4 in Calaveras County) where his father sold goods to miners. The youngster lived there from age 4 to 12 – important years when ideas, dreams and even careers are seeded in the inquisitive minds of adolescents.

Thirty years later he reportedly returned to Murphys to show his family the roots of his youthful inspiration and values.

“The rough life of the camp made a vivid impression on Albert,” wrote his daughter, Dorothy Michelson Livingston in her book, “The Master of Light.”

“He acquired some of the tenacity and toughness of mind that he brought to his mature life as a scientist. The atmosphere was rough and exciting. Arguments were usually settled with fists, knives or bullets…women and children were safer behind locked doors after sundown because some townsmen became gun-happy from gambling and whiskey.”

The wild and woolly diggings were bursting at the seams with miners trying to grab their portion of the riches.

The late, great Murphys historian Coke Wood wrote that more than $5 million was taken from four acres south of Murphys Hotel – an area frequented by Albert and his peers. Wood said Wells Fargo shipped more than $15 million worth of gold dust from the active camp in the 1850s and 1860s.

While Albert’s father successfully sold picks, shovels, boots, tents and clothes to the gold-hungry miners, his mother set high standards for her children. She insisted they “mind their manners,” exhibit honesty and diligence – qualities they had possessed all their lives. Albert became absorbed with the beauty of the area, developing artistic skills, sketching trees and eventually people. He even took up the violin.

He loved Murphys but when his aunt and uncle moved to San Francisco, his parents wanted him to join his cousins and attend the larger schools there. He was a good student and liked setting up science experiments for other students as he had done at Murphys Grammar School.

When he returned home to spend the summer three years later, the rush for riches had abandoned most of Murphys and was erupting in Virginia City. So the Michelsons packed up and followed the miners to the wild Nevada town.

But studious Albert would return to San Francisco and eventually receive a special appointment to the US Naval Academy from President Grant. (Ironically, Grant would later be a guest at the Murphys Hotel on January 8, 1880.)

Albert graduated from the Naval Academy at the top of his class in Optics and was an instructor there from 1875-79.

At a lecture, he chose to demonstrate the speed of light. Instead of measuring light 65 feet to the far mirror (as some had done), he measured it over 2,000 feet along the bank of the Severn River at Annapolis. Albert used high quality lenses and mirrors to focus and reflect the beam of light. His results were astounding and featured in The New York Times. They showed that light traveled over 186,300 miles per second. This was many times more accurate than any previous measurements and he became world-famous in his 20s.

Albert’s contributions marked the beginning of modern physics and included the invention of optical precision instruments. For his spectroscopic and other investigations made during his tenure at the University of Chicago, he was awarded the 1907 Nobel Prize.

The former Murphys resident was able to measure distances by the length of lightwaves, and light interference enabled the determination of a star’s size. From 1923-27 he served as President of the National Academy of Sciences.

“His experiments triggered a progressive chain of advances in physics which helped unravel and unify opposing theories. It began with the properties of light and laid the groundwork for Einstein’s Theory of Relativity as well as the contemporary exploration of outer space and atomic energy,” wrote one journalist.

He continued to do groundbreaking research around the country, which included stints at California’s Lick Observatory and Mt. Wilson, before passing away in Pasadena in 1931. But his legacy would live on.

During World War II, Liberty Ship #2254 was named in his honor and the Naval Academy has the Michelson Hall of Science Building.

Back in his former hometown of Murphys, an elementary school proudly bears his name. You can still walk past his beautiful family home (Church & Main), which has been remodeled twice; see his one-room schoolhouse (65 Jones St.); the creek where he played (down the hill behind the Murphys Hotel, 4576 Main St.), and share the same thrill from yesteryear strolling along the tree-lined streets.

Be sure to visit the fascinating Traver Stone Store (1856) where Albert most likely bought candy and drank from the unique indoor well. Now it’s the fabulous Old Timers Museum (Main & Sheep Ranch Road), complete with all sorts of historic items, including an exhibit honoring Albert that even has copies of his scientific notebooks on the speed of light. It’s staffed by friendly volunteers.

A trip to Murphys is like stepping back in time. You’ll undoubtedly be inspired by your journey and find it an “enlightening experience.”

MURPHY’S MASTER OF LIGHT by Craig MacDonald appears in the book, Gold Rush glimpses, available through Sierra Heritage publications in January 2004.

Craig MacDonald worked eight years as a reporter for the San Diego Union. The Pulitzer Prize nominee has written numerous books and articles on the California Gold Rush. MacDonald has also written travel stories for Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, San Diego Union and more. His public relations programs for SBC/Pacific Bell have won international awards. MacDonald currently works in telecommunications, as well as writing articles for magazines and publishing books.