Some people find their true calling early on in life, some take a good part of their lives to find it and others never find it. A young man named Gabriel who lived in Danzig around the turn of the 18th century took some time to find his calling. Starting out as a merchant, Gabriel found himself ill-suited as an entrepreneur; every business he touched failed.
Stand-up comedy didn’t work so well either. If anyone were foolish enough to rise to the bait of Gabriel’s opening remarks about how hot it had been with the question “How hot is it?” they didn’t even get the mediocre chuckle of “It’s so hot that my chickens are laying hard-boiled eggs” or “It’s so hot that even Mitt Romney seems cool.” Gabriel might answer, “On a scale of 32 to 212, I’d give it a 92.” Yawn.
But hidden in his failure as a comedian was success of a sort – he had actually constructed the device that measured the temperature of which he joked. Up until that time all measurements of temperature were as vague as “hot as a basted turkey” or “cold as a Republican’s heart.” Many a scientist – including Isaac Newton – had tried to develop a means of measuring the temperature. Gabriel had done it – and had found his calling.
At first, he made his temperature measuring devices using wine-filled tubes, but he couldn’t achieve any degree of accuracy and someone was always drinking the contents of his thermometer. Switching to mercury solved both problems. He marked the tube at the point where the mercury stood when the tube was placed in freezing water and again at the point it reached in boiling water. The freezing point became 32 degrees (his lucky number, perhaps). He then divided the space between that and the boiling point into 180 parts (something to do with half a circle). It was just mysterious enough that it caught on, and it became oh so trendy to measure the temperature of things.
His thermometer took his name, and would from then on be known as the Gabriel. It might have, but his agent insisted that his last name, Fahrenheit, was much more scientific sounding. Even after Gabriel Fahrenheit’s death on September 16, 1736, the Fahrenheit Thermometer remained the standard by which temperature was measured, used by everyone except some guy from Stockholm named Celsius.