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Celsius: Inventor of the Centigrade Scale

The name of the Swedish astronomer, Anders Celsius, was officially given to the centigrade scale by an international conference on weights and measures in 1948. Celsius invented the "Celsius" scale in 1742. The scale posits that the freezing point of water should be designated as zero, while the boiling point of water should be 100°. Each degree then is 1/100th of the difference between the two temperatures. The Celsius scale would gain almost universal acceptance. The exception is the United States where it is mainly used in scientific and some engineering fields. Interestingly enough, Celsius originally designed his scale backwards from its current form. Zero was boiling and 100° was freezing.

Freehand drawing of Anders Celsius based on the portrait by Olof Arenius (1701 - 1766)

Anders Celsius came from a long line of scientists. Both of his grandfathers were professors at the University at Upsalla. (Magnus Celsius was a mathematician and Anders Spole was an astronomer.) True to form, Celsius was born in Upsalla Sweden in 1701, the son of the professor of astronomy, Nils Celsius.1

His education included a tour of many of the major observatories around Europe, where he had the opportunity to work with the best astronomers of his day.

He succeeded his father to the chair of astronomy at Upsalla in 1730. Like many of the scientists of his time his interests and studies were wide-ranging. He made observations of the Aurora Borealis - he discovered it was caused by the Earth's magnetism. In 1741 he was instrumental in the construction of Sweden's first astronomical observatory. He also worked in the field of cartography. He was the first to determine that Scandinavia is slowly rising further and further above sea level. However, he misinterpreted the cause as the evaporation of the sea. He was part of an expedition to measure degrees of meridian in polar regions to determine the precise shape of the Earth. In conjunction with another team, they determined that the Earth is slightly flattened at the poles.

Celsius died of tuberculosis in 1744 at the very young age of 42. Never one to rest on his laurels, he had been at work on several new projects even at the time of his death. Interestingly enough there is even a rough-draft of a science fiction novel in his papers.2

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  1. University of Upsalla, Sweden
  2. About Celsius