A scientific history of colours
Between 1672 and 1676, Isaac Newton PRS published papers in the Royal Society journal, the Philosophical Transactions, to describe his experiments to understand the origins of colours.
Robert Hooke FRS and others held that colours resulted from the mixing between darkness and light, but Newton disproved this theory. Using prisms, he proved that light alone, through refraction, was responsible for colours. In addition to stirring interest in artistic circles, Newton’s experiments launched a fascinating debate around optics which developed through unpublished letters with Dutch scientist Christian Huygens and in the pages of Philosophical Transactions.
This collection assembles manuscripts revealing the original controversy that followed Newton’s publications and connects it to later papers by leading scientists such as William Hershel, Thomas Young and James Clerk Maxwell who referred directly to Newton’s theory as the founding moment in the history of optics. The history of colours that emerges from this collection crosses scientific disciplines and demonstrates Newton’s impact on nearly 200 years of scientific discussions.
- Read Dr Helen Klus’ explanation of the experiment and how it led to a proof that light is composed of particles.
- The Beauty of Diagrams from the BBC discusses one of Newton’s sketch of the experiment in 2010.
- More on Maxwell’s optical theorems.
- Conduct your own experiments to discover the reflection of light!
Other collections have related documents in their archives:
- Cambridge University Library holds the largest and most important collection of the scientific works of Isaac Newton (1642-1727), discover in particular his laboratory notebook in which he describes the experiment in minute details.
- The Chicago Museum of Science and Industry recreates Newton’s experiment using giant prisms in its Science Storms gallery on sunlight.
- A prism owned by Isaac Newton is in the collections of the British Museum.