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A thermometer (from the Greek θερμός (thermo) meaning "warm" and meter, "to measure") is a device that measures temperature or temperature gradient using a variety of different principles.[1] A thermometer has two important elements: the temperature sensor (e.g. the bulb on a mercury thermometer) in which some physical change occurs with temperature, plus some means of converting this physical change into a value (e.g. the scale on a mercury thermometer). Thermometers increasingly use electronic means to provide a digital display or input to a computer.


Primary and secondary thermometers

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, 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.


While an individual thermometer is able to measure degrees of hotness, the readings on two thermometers cannot be compared unless they conform to an agreed scale. There is today an absolute thermodynamic temperature scale. Internationally agreed temperature scales are designed to approximate this closely, based on fixed points and interpolating thermometers. The most recent official temperature scale is the International Temperature Scale of 1990. It extends from 0.65 K (−272.5 °C; −458.5 °F) to approximately 1,358 K (1,085 °C; 1,985 °F).

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