Thermometer, Primary and secondary thermometers

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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).


Thermometers can be divided into two separate groups according to the level of knowledge about the physical basis of the underlying thermodynamic laws and quantities. For primary thermometers the measured property of matter is known so well that temperature can be calculated without any unknown quantities. Examples of these are thermometers based on the equation of state of a gas, on the velocity of sound in a gas, on the thermal noise (see Johnson–Nyquist noise), voltage or current of an electrical resistor, on blackbody radiation, and on the angular anisotropy of gamma ray emission of certain radioactive nuclei in a magnetic field. Primary thermometers are relatively complex.

Secondary thermometers are most widely used because of their convenience. Also, they are often much more sensitive than primary ones. For secondary thermometers knowledge of the measured property is not sufficient to allow direct calculation of temperature. They have to be calibrated against a primary thermometer at least at one temperature or at a number of fixed temperatures. Such fixed points, for example, triple points and superconducting transitions, occur reproducibly at the same temperature.

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External Links

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

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