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The time-dependent electron temperature at the axis of an ac mercury–sodium–iodide arc discharge is determined experimentally. It modulates in phase with the discharge voltage and differs in modulation and magnitude from the temperature obtained assuming thermodynamic equilibrium. The method used is independent of plasma equilibrium assumptions as well as of line-transition probabilities, and since it is based on relative emission measurements, it can, in principle, be applied to discharges contained within translucent envelopes. © 2002 American Institute of Physics.