Thermometer, Precision, accuracy, and reproducibility

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A thermometer is a device that measures temperature or a temperature gradient using a variety of different principles. A thermometer has two important elements: the temperature sensor (e.g. the bulb on a mercury-in-glass thermometer) in which some physical change occurs with temperature, plus some means of converting this physical change into a numerical value (e.g. the visible scale that is marked on a mercury-in-glass thermometer).


The precision or resolution of a thermometer is simply to what fraction of a degree it is possible to make a reading. For high temperature work it may only be possible to measure to the nearest 10 °C or more. Clinical thermometers and many electronic thermometers are usually readable to 0.1 °C. Special instruments can give readings to one thousandth of a degree.(What instruments?) However, this precision does not mean the reading is true or accurate.

A thermometer calibrated to a known fixed point is accurate (i.e. gives a true reading) at that point. Most thermometers are originally calibrated to a constant-volume gas thermometer. In between fixed calibration points, interpolation is used, usually linear. This may give significant differences between different types of thermometer at points far away from the fixed points. For example the expansion of mercury in a glass thermometer is slightly different from the change in resistance of a platinum resistance thermometer, so these two will disagree slightly at around 50 °C.T. Duncan (1973) Advanced Physics: Materials and Mechanics (John Murray, Lodon) ISBN 0-7195-2844-5 There may be other causes due to imperfections in the instrument, e.g. in a liquid-in-glass thermometer if the capillary tube varies in diameter.

For many purposes reproducibility is important. That is, does the same thermometer give the same reading for the same temperature (or do replacement or multiple thermometers give the same reading)? Reproducible temperature measurement means that comparisons are valid in scientific experiments and industrial processes are consistent. Thus if the same type of thermometer is calibrated in the same way its readings will be valid even if it is slightly inaccurate compared to the absolute scale.

An example of a reference thermometer used to check others to industrial standards would be a platinum resistance thermometer with a digital display to 0.1 °C (its precision) which has been calibrated at 5 points against national standards (−18, 0, 40, 70, 100 °C) and which is certified to an accuracy of ±0.2 °C.Peak SensorsCopyright: Attribute—Share Alike

External Links

  • WikipediaHistory of Temperature and ThermometryThe Chemical Educator, Vol. 5, No. 2 (2000)History Channel – Invention

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