A scientific history of colours

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interest in artistic circles, Newton’s experiments launched a fascinating debate around optics which developed through unpublished letters with Dutch scientist Christian Huygens and in the pages of Philosophical Transactions.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.

Other collections have related documents in their archives:

Correspondence by relationship