Miller, Dayton Clarence

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(b. Strongsville, Ohio, 13 March 1866; d. Cleveland, Ohio, 22 February 1941)


Miller was the son of Charles Webster Dewey Miller and the former Vienna Pomeroy. In 1886 he was graduated from Baldwin-Wallace College and in 1890 was awarded a doctorate in science from Princeton University, having studied under the astrophysicist Charles A. Young. Miller then joined the faculty of the Case School of Applied Science in Cleveland as an instructor of mathematics. He transferred to the physics department in 1893, the year he married Edith Easton. He remained at Case as professor of physics until his death.

Miller was an effective teacher, a captivating public lecturer, and a respected research scientist. In 1914 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, in 1919 to the American Philosophical Society, and in 1921 to the National Academy of Sciences. From 1918 until his death he held various offices in the American Physical Society, including the presidency for the 1925–1926 term. From 1927 to 1930 he was chairman of the National Research Council’s Division of Physical Sciences, and from 1913 to 1933 he was president of the Acoustical Society of America.

Miller’s work in acoustics grew out of a love for music that dated from childhood. His mother had been the church organist, his father had sung in the choir, and Miller himself was an accomplished flutist. Keenly interested in the physics of musical tones, he invented what he called the phonodeik in 1908, a mechanical device that recorded sound patterns photographically. During World War I he used the apparatus to analyze the nature of gun wave-forms for the National Research Council, which was developing improved techniques to locate enemy artillery by sonic means. After the war Miller became an expert in architectural acoustics, consulting on the interior design of a number of college chapels as well as Severance Hall the home of the Cleveland Orchestra.

As a research physicist Miller was best known for his elaborate repetitions of the experiment that Albert A. Michelson and Edward W. Morley had performed with an interferometer in 1887 to detect the stationary luminiferous ether postulated by Maxwell. Miller did the experiment in collaboration with Morley between 1902 and 1904. Repeating it by himself on Mt. Wilson, California, between 1921 and 1926, he found a positive effect corresponding to an apparent relative motion of the earth and the ether of some ten kilometers per second in the plane of the interferometer. Though this velocity was about 70 percent less than expected, Miller fastened on his result as a refutation of Einstein’s theory of relativity, which he was unwilling to accept on principle to the end of his life.

When Miller presented his data in 1925, he provoked considerable interest among physicists and was awarded a $1,000 annual prize by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Anti-relativists hailed his findings; relativists believed that they probably rested on experimental error. In the 1950’s a group of physicists subjected Miller’s Mt. Wilson data to statistical analysis. They found that only part of his positive readings could be attributed to random fluctuations. The rest seemed to result from an appreciable systematic effect whose magnitude varied with the conditions of observation. The cause of this effect appeared to be the large temperature changes which undoubtedly occurred in the poorly insulated shack that housed Miller’s apparatus atop Mt. Wilson.


I. Original Works. Miller’s personal papers and research notebooks are at Case Western Reserve University but are as yet unavailable to scholars. Miller’s “The Ether Drift Experiment and the Determination of the Absolute Motion of the Earth,” in Reviews of Modern Physics, 5 (July 1933), 203–242, is a comprehensive résumé of all Miller’s repetitions of the Michelson-Morley experiment.

II. Secondary Literature. Complete bibliographies of Miller’s writings and introductions to his career are Harvey Fletcher, “Dayton Clarence Miller,” in Biographical Memoirs. National Academy of Sciences, 23 (1945), 61–74; and Robert S. Shankland, “Dayton Clarence Miller: Physics Across Fifty Years,” in American Journal of Physics, 9 (Oct. 1941), 273–283. Miller’s ether-drift data is assessed in Shankland, et al., “New Analysis of the Interferometer Observations of Dayton C. Miller,” in Review of Modern Physics, 27 (Apr. 1955), 167–178; and his research is set in context in Loyd S. Swenson, Jr., The Ethereal Aether: A History of the Michelson-Morley-Miller Aether-Drift Experiments, 1880–1930 (Austin, 1972).

Daniel J. Kevles

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Miller, Dayton Clarence

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