According to this article

Peirce was the first to experimentally tie a unit, the meter, to an absolute standard, the wavelength of a spectral line

Did C.S Peirce make any other noteworthy contributions to physics or chemistry?

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Wow, that's neat Physics Today ran an article on him! $\endgroup$
    – Geremia
    Commented Nov 20, 2020 at 21:37

3 Answers 3


Not really. Peirce received formal training in chemistry at Harvard, and wrote some manuscripts and papers on the subject in 1860s. One of them, The Pairing of the Elements (Chemical News, 1869), published the same year as Mendeleev's celebrated work, even anticipated the periodic law, but in a way common to chemists of the time (Hinrich, Odling, de Chancourtois, Meyer, and Newlands). At the same time, contra Mendeleev, he supported the Prout’s hypothesis that elements were aggregates of a single "protyle" (the hydrogen atom), and attempted to test it experimentally.

Peirce's originality rather manifested in his using of the chemical background as a springboard for analysis of relational logic, diagrammatic reasoning and various classifications he was so fond of. What some characterize as Peirce's philosophical proto-structuralism is directly motivated by his analysis of chemical graphs, see Bellucci, Peirce’s Chemistry of Concepts. It was a major contribution to the philosophy of chemistry, and science generally, that conceptualized the hypothetico-deductive method, the use of abduction and the function of diagrams in science, and chemistry in particular, but not to chemistry itself. The same goes for physics. Aside from methodology, he was one of the first to go against the grain of times (and Kant) to argue from physics for metaphysical indeterminism ("tychism"), but did not do much in physics itself.

Campbell's recent thesis, The chemistry of relations, has a chapter dedicated to Peirce's manuscripts and papers on chemistry proper, it is the first study of this kind:

"I examine Peirce’s research interest in developing a system for classifying and grouping the chemical elements according to atomic weight is common to nineteenth century chemistry. In this respect Peirce’s interest is again main-stream for the period.In fact, as has already been discussed in chapter one, Peirce’s interests were also shared by his tutor Josiah Cooke... The arrangement of the chemical elements that Peirce achieved is described by Nathan Houser (1982:xx) as going ‘far in Mendeleev’s direction, before Mendeleev’s announcement of the [periodic] law’ and before Mendeleev’s work ‘became known in Western Europe and America’. Here again Peirce’s chemical researches mirror the concerns of other researches in both North America and in Europe.

...Whilst not wishing to challenge Fisch’s view of Peirce as ‘most original and versatile intellect’, I have highlighted that as a chemist, Peirce operated within the boundaries of what Thomas Kuhn (1996) described as normal science. Where Peirce differed was in his ready willingness to engage with the metaphysical issues that many chemists, including his tutor Josiah Cooke, chose to ignore. During the 1860s most scholars agree that Peirce almost ‘outsources’ his metaphysics from Kant when forming his philosophical position. What I believe is an addition to this scholarship is my claim that Peirce’s Kantian metaphysics emerges in his chemistry.

Of significance is that in1869 Peirce, by employing inductive reasoning, argues for an orderly arrangement of the chemical elements. That same year Peirce publishes a series of three papers which includes a justification for inductive reasoning which denies J.S Mill’s defence in terms of the orderliness of nature. I would argue that Peirce does not deny the discoverability of regularities in the world; rather the insufficiency of such an appeal to order to justify inductive reasoning. As we have seen Peirce’s justification turns on the likelihood that in the longer term inquirers –such as chemists seeking a ordered system for the chemical elements –would be ‘fated’ on occasion to be successful in their inductions, inductive reasoning being, at least at this stage in Peirce’s philosophy,the only form of ‘synthetic reasoning’ inquirers possess.


The Physics Today article shows that Michelson knew of C. S. Peirce's unpublished results on measuring the wavelength of sodium emission:

Michelson realized that the interferometer he and Morley had developed and were just then using to detect ether drift could also be used to make precise wavelength measurements. In June 1887, after getting initial results in their epochal experiment on the speed of light, Michelson and Morley conducted preliminary spectroscopic metrology measurements. Their paper “On a Method of making the Wave-length of Sodium Light the actual and practical Standard of Length” begins, “The first actual attempt to make the wave-length of sodium light a standard of length was made by Peirce.”15 But, they pointed out, Peirce’s measurements, “which have not as yet been published” (and never would be), had many systematic errors.

15. A. Michelson, and E. Morley, Am. J. Sci. 34, 427 (1887).

Peirce's surveying work required determining the length of pendula accurately, which is related to his contributions in geodesy (Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography article on Peirce):

In 1879 Peirce succeeded in determining the length of the meter from a wavelength of light. Benjamin Peirce described this feat, an adumbration of the work of Michelson, as “the only sure determination of the meter, by which it could be recovered if it were to be lost to science.” By 1882 Peirce was engaged in a mathematical study of the relation between the variation of gravity and the figure of the earth. He claimed that “divergencies from a spherical form can at once be detected in the earth’s figure by this means,” and that “this result puts a new face on the relation of pendulum work to geodesy.”


Pierce was educated as a chemist and employed as a scientist. He considered himself primarily as a logician in the American school of analytic philosophy.

His biographer Joseph Brent, called him 'he was at first, almost stupefied, and then aloof, cold, depressed, extremely suspicious, impatient of the slightest crossing and subject to violent outbursts of temper.' And according to Wikipedia, it's consequences might have led to his later social isolation.

Given that his main employment, intermittently, was by the US Coast Survey and its successor, the US Coast and Geodetic Survey, it's not surprising that he was responsible for some innovations in metrology.

Physics Today, confirms that Pierce 'was the first to experimentally tie a unit, the meter, to an absolute standard, a spectral line' but they go on to add

For several reasons that contribution has not received much attention. First, he never finished it to his satisfaction and only left fragmentary reports in his 12 000 published pages, and 80,000 hand-written pages of notes and letters - mostly on logic, mathematics, science and philosophy.

They go onto say that:

Pierce's chaotic personal and professional life has hindered a comprehensive assessment of contributions.

So I expect, we will find out - eventually ...


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