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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Matters of Light


Research in optics was a multifaceted affair in the Enlightenment that produced all kinds of ideas about light and colour and practices to employ it. They provide a mirror for present-day practices and concepts of optics that seem to evade basic notions of light and optics and are much richer than the basic textbook theories. This paper discusses three cases of enlightened optics. They came right after the classic formulations of the wave theory by Huygens and the particle theory by Newton; but these theories were largely irrelevant for these pursuits. The three-colour printing that Le Blon invented presented an alternative understanding of the nature and mixing of colours, based on visual perception. The burning lenses of Tschirnhaus showed the material effects of light, and consequentially its material nature. The barometric light displayed by vacuum glass spheres evaded every explanation but gave rise to the invention and investigation of electricity. These original inroads into optics may inspire present-day researchers to think anew about light and colours.

Insights Paper