Skip to main content
Chemistry LibreTexts

Temperature Basics

Skills to Develop

  • To identify the different between temperature and heat
  • To recognize the different scales used to measuring temperature

The concept of temperature may seem familiar to you, but many people confuse temperature with heat. Temperature is a measure of how hot or cold an object is relative to another object (its thermal energy content), whereas heat is the flow of thermal energy between objects with different temperatures.

Three different scales are commonly used to measure temperature: Fahrenheit (expressed as °F), Celsius (°C), and Kelvin (K). Thermometers measure temperature by using materials that expand or contract when heated or cooled. Mercury or alcohol thermometers, for example, have a reservoir of liquid that expands when heated and contracts when cooled, so the liquid column lengthens or shortens as the temperature of the liquid changes.

The Fahrenheit Scale

The Fahrenheit temperature scale was developed in 1717 by the German physicist Gabriel Fahrenheit, who designated the temperature of a bath of ice melting in a solution of salt as the zero point on his scale. Such a solution was commonly used in the 18th century to carry out low-temperature reactions in the laboratory. The scale was measured in increments of 12; its upper end, designated as 96°, was based on the armpit temperature of a healthy person—in this case, Fahrenheit’s wife. Later, the number of increments shown on a thermometer increased as measurements became more precise. The upper point is based on the boiling point of water, designated as 212° to maintain the original magnitude of a Fahrenheit degree, whereas the melting point of ice is designated as 32°.

The Celsius Scale

The Celsius scale was developed in 1742 by the Swedish astronomer Anders Celsius. It is based on the melting and boiling points of water under normal atmospheric conditions. The current scale is an inverted form of the original scale, which was divided into 100 increments. Because of these 100 divisions, the Celsius scale is also called the centigrade scale.

The Kelvin Scale

Lord Kelvin, working in Scotland, developed the Kelvin scale in 1848. His scale uses molecular energy to define the extremes of hot and cold. Absolute zero, or 0 K, corresponds to the point at which molecular energy is at a minimum. The Kelvin scale is preferred in scientific work, although the Celsius scale is also commonly used. Temperatures measured on the Kelvin scale are reported simply as K, not °K.

Figure\(\PageIndex{1}\): A Comparison of the Fahrenheit, Celsius, and Kelvin Temperature Scales. Because the difference between the freezing point of water and the boiling point of water is 100° on both the Celsius and Kelvin scales, the size of a degree Celsius (°C) and a kelvin (K) are precisely the same. In contrast, both a degree Celsius and a kelvin are 9/5 the size of a degree Fahrenheit (°F).

Converting between Scales

The kelvin is the same size as the Celsius degree, so measurements are easily converted from one to the other. The freezing point of water is 0°C = 273.15 K; the boiling point of water is 100°C = 373.15 K. The Kelvin and Celsius scales are related as follows:

T (in °C) + 273.15 = T (in K)

T (in K) − 273.15 = T (in °C)

Degrees on the Fahrenheit scale, however, are based on an English tradition of using 12 divisions, just as 1 ft = 12 in. The relationship between degrees Fahrenheit and degrees Celsius is as follows:where the coefficient for degrees Fahrenheit is exact. (Some calculators have a function that allows you to convert directly between °F and °C.) There is only one temperature for which the numerical value is the same on both the Fahrenheit and Celsius scales: −40°C = −40°F. The relationship between the scales are as follows: 

°C = (5/9)*(°F-32) 

°F = (9/5)*(°C)+32

Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

Convert the temperature of the surface of the sun (5800 K) and the boiling points of gold (3080 K) and liquid nitrogen (77.36 K) to °C and °F.A student is ill with a temperature of 103.5°F. What is her temperature in °C and K?