Thomas Corwin Mendenhall

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Thomas Corwin Mendenhall
Thomas Corwin Mendenhall
Born October 4, 1841
Hanoverton, Ohio, USA
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Ravenna, Ohio, USA
Nationality US
Fields physics
Known for gravity
Influences Augustus De Morgan
Notable awards Cullum Geographical Medal (1901)
Franklin Medal (1918)

Thomas Corwin Mendenhall (October 4, 1841 – March 23, 1924) was an American autodidact physicist and meteorologist. Alongside his work, he was also an advocate for the adoption of the metric system by the United States.


Mendenhall was born in Hanoverton, Ohio to Stephen Mendenhall, a farmer and carriage-maker, and Mary Thomas, and married Susan Allan Marple in 1870. The couple had one child. In 1852 the family moved to Marlboro, Ohio and Mendenhall became principal of the local primary school in 1858. He formalized his teaching qualifications at Southwest Normal School in 1861 with an Instructor Normalis qualification.[1]

He taught at a number of high schools, gaining an impressive reputation as a teacher and educator until 1873 when, although lacking conventional academic credentials, he was appointed professor of physics and mechanics at the Ohio Agricultural and Mechanical College. The College ultimately became Ohio State University,[1] Mendenhall being the first member of the original faculty.[2]

In 1878,[1] on the recommendation of Edward S. Morse,[citation needed] he was recruited to help the modernization of Meiji Era Japan as one of the o-yatoi gaikokujin (hired foreigners), serving as visiting professor of physics at Tokyo Imperial University. In connection with this appointment, he founded a meteorological observatory to make systematic observations during his residence in Japan. From measurements using a Kater's pendulum of the force of gravity at the sea level and at the summit of Mount Fuji, Mendenhall deduced a value for the mass of the Earth that agreed closely with estimates that Francis Baily had made in England by another method. He also made a series of elaborate measurements of the wavelengths of the solar spectrum by means of a large spectrometer. He also became interested in earthquakes while in Japan, and was one of the founders of the Seismological Society of Japan (SSJ). During his time in Japan, he also gave public lectures on various scientific topics to general audiences in temples and in theaters.[1]

Returning to Ohio in 1881, Mendenhall was instrumental in developing the Ohio State Meteorological Service. He devised a system of weather signals for display on railroad trains. This method became general throughout the United States and Canada.

He became professor at the US Signal Corps in 1884, introducing of systematic observations of lightning, and investigating methods for determining ground temperatures. He was the first to establish stations in the United States for the systematic observation of earthquake phenomena.

Resigning in 1886, Mendenhall took up the presidency of the Rose Polytechnic Institute in Terre Haute, Indiana before becoming superintendent of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey in 1889. During his time as superintendent, he issued the Mendenhall Order and oversaw the consequent transition of the United States's weights and measures from the customary system, based on that of England, to the metric system. Mendenhall remained a strong proponent for the official adoption of the metric system all his life. Also, as superintendent of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, he was also responsible for defining the exact national boundary between the United States (Alaska) and Canada. Mendenhall was president of the Worcester Polytechnic Institute from 1894 until 1901 when he emigrated to Europe.[1]

He returned to the United States in 1912. He was appointed to the Board of Trustees of Ohio State University in 1919, and is remembered for his successful efforts to close the College of Homeopathic Medicine and his unsuccessful effort to limit the capacity of Ohio Stadium to 45,000 seats, contending that it would never be able to fill to its design capacity of 63,000 seats.[2] He continued to serve as a trustee until his death at Ravenna, Ohio in 1924.[1]

Work on stylometry

In 1887 Mendenhall published one of the earliest attempts at stylometry, the quantitative analysis of writing style.[3] Prompted by a suggestion made by the English mathematician Augustus de Morgan in 1851, Mendenhall attempted to characterize the style of different authors through the frequency distribution of words of various lengths. In this article Mendenhall mentioned the possible relevance of this technique to the Shakespeare Authorship Question, and several years later this idea was picked up by a supporter of the theory that Sir Francis Bacon was the true author of the works usually attributed to Shakespeare. He paid for a team of two people to undertake the counting required, but the results did not appear to support this particular theory.[4] It has however since been shown by Williams that Mendenhall failed to take into account "genre differences" that could invalidate that particular conclusion.[5] For comparison, in 1901 Mendenhall also had works by Christopher Marlowe analysed,[6] and those supporting the Marlovian theory that he was the true author seized eagerly upon his finding that "in the characteristic curve of his plays Christopher Marlowe agrees with Shakespeare about as well as Shakespeare agrees with himself."[7]




  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 Carey (1999)
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 [1] The Birth of Ohio Stadium
  3. Mendenhall (1887)
  4. Mendenhall (1901) p.104
  5. Williams (1975)
  7. Mendenhall (1901) p.105
  8. [2] Mendendall Glacier Visitor Center home page
  9. Alexander (1926)


Works by Mendenhall

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Works about Mendenhall

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  • [Anon.] (2001) "Mendenhall, Thomas Corwin", Encyclopaedia Britannica, Deluxe CDROM edition
  • Carey, C. W. (1999) "Mendenhall, Thomas Corwin", American National Biography, Oxford University Press, 15: 297-298, ISBN 0-19-520635-5
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  • Hebra, A. & Hebra, A. J. (2003) Measure for Measure: The Story of Imperial, Metric, and Other Units ISBN 0-8018-7072-0
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  • Mendenhall, T. C. (Jr.) (1989) American Scientist in Early Meiji Japan: The Autobiographical Notes of Thomas C. Mendenhall, ISBN 0-8248-1177-1
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