A thermometer is a device used to measure temperature. The thermoscope, developed by Galileo around 1592, was the first instrument used to measure temperature qualitatively. It was not until 1611 that Sanctorius Sanctorius, a colleague of Galileo, devised and added a scale to the thermoscope, thus facilitating quantitative measurement of temperature change. By this time the instrument was called the thermometer, from the Greek words therme (“heat”) and metron (“measure”). About 1644 it became obvious, however, that this instrument—comprising a large bulb flask with a long, open neck, using wine to indicate the reading—was extremely sensitive to barometric pressure. To alleviate the problem, Grand Duke Ferdinand II of Tuscany developed a process to hernetically seal the thermometer, thereby eliminating outside barometric influence. The basic form has varied little since.

There are many types of thermometers in use today: the recording thermometer uses a pen on a rotating drum to continuously record temperature readings; the digital readout thermometers often coupled with other weather measuring devices; and the typical household types hung on a wall, post, or those used for medical purposes.

With a thermometer, temperature can be measured using any of three primary units: Fahrenheit, Celsius, or Kelvin. At one point during the eighteenth century, nearly 35 scales of measure had been developed and were in use.

In 1714 Gabriel Daniel Fahrenheit, a Dutch instrument maker known for his fine craftsmanship, developed a thermometer using 32 (the melting point of ice) and 96 (the standard temperature of the human body) as his fixed points. It has since been determined that 32 and 212 (the boiling point of water) are the scale’s fixed points, with 98.6 being accepted as the healthy, normal body temperature.

Swedish scientist Anders Celsius, in 1742, assigned 0 degrees as the point at which water boiled and 100 degrees as the point at which ice melted. These two figures were eventually switched—creating the scale we know today—with 0 degrees as the freezing point of water and 100 degrees as the boiling point. Use of this scale quickly spread through Sweden and to France, and for two centuries it was known as the centigrade scale. The name was changed in 1948 to Celsius to honor its inventor.

In 1848 another scientist, Lord Kelvin (William Thomson), proposed another scale based on the same principles as the Celsius thermometer, with the fixed point of absolute zero set at the equivalent of -273.15 degrees Celsius (the units used on this scale are called Kelvin [K]). The freezing and boiling points of water are registered at 273 K and 373 K respectively. The Kelvin scale is most often used in scientific research studies.