A new self-calibrating modulation ellipsometer (SCME) has demonstrated outstanding accuracy, utility, reliability, and speed. The ellipsometer is well suited to in-situ monitoring of surface degradation, film growth or etching, and quality control. The design incorporates several novel features including: (1) full self calibration, (2) high speed, (3) high accuracy, (4) high signal-to-noise ratio, (5) compactness, (6) reliability, and (7) no moving parts. The design is portable, can be fully automated, and is suitable for use in remote and harsh environments. A complete prototype instrument incorporates all optical components, mechanical mounts with flexible configuration options, custom electronic components, signal acquisition, computer control, data analysis, and a user interface, all integrated into a self-contained, user-friendly, system. It operates at fixed wavelength and incidence angle, though both can be changed by the operator in a few minutes as desired. Quantitative testing verified the absolute accuracy and suitability for monitoring real-time in-situ film growth and etching.