Linear defects in crystalline materials, known as dislocations, are central to the understanding of plastic deformation and mechanical strength, as well as control of performance in a variety of electronic and photonic materials. Despite nearly a century of research on dislocation structure and interactions, measurements of the energetics and kinetics of dislocation nucleation have not been possible, as synthesizing and testing pristine crystals absent of defects has been prohibitively challenging. Here, we report experiments that directly measure the surface dislocation nucleation strengths in high-quality 〈110〉 Pd nanowhiskers subjected to uniaxial tension. We find that, whereas nucleation strengths are weakly size- and strain-rate-dependent, a strong temperature dependence is uncovered, corroborating predictions that nucleation is assisted by thermal fluctuations. We measure atomic-scale activation volumes, which explain both the ultrahigh athermal strength as well as the temperature-dependent scatter, evident in our experiments and well captured by a thermal activation model.