Michelson talked Alexander Graham Bell, newly enriched inventor of the telephone, into providing the funds to build an ingenious and sensitive instrument of Michelson's own devising called an interferometer, which could measure the velocity of light with great precision.
Then, assisted by the genial but shadowy Morley, Michelson embarked on years of fastidious measurements. The work was delicate and exhausting, and had to be suspended for a time to permit Michelson a brief but comprehensive nervous breakdown, but by 1887 they had their results. They were not at all what the two scientists had expected to find.
As Caltech astrophysicist Kip S. Thorne has written: "The speed of light turned out to be the same in all directions and at all seasons."It was the first hint in two hundred years—in exactly two hundred years, in fact—that Newton’s laws might not apply all the time everywhere. The Michelson-Morley outcome became, in the words of William H. Cropper, "probably the most famous negative result in the history of physics." Michelson was awarded Nobel Prize in physics for the work—the first American so honored—but not for twenty years. Meanwhile, the Michelson-Morley experiments would hover unpleasantly, like a musty smell, in the background of scientific thought.