And all was Light: Hooke and Newton on Light and Color

Part of the Science Networks. Historical Studies book series (SNHS, volume 39)


Late in 1671, with the first decade of his service to the Society drawing to a close, Hooke was the Society’s acknowledged expert on light and color. He was just embarking on some of his most important architectural projects and in the coming decade would publish several of his Cutler lectures, displaying for the world to see his breadth of interests and sheer virtuosity. It was at this point, with Hooke at the top of his game, that the young Isaac Newton, not quite 30, offered the first installment of his thoughts on light and color to the Society in a letter which Oldenburg read on 8 February. His remarks, which caused an immediate sensation, followed closely on the heels of the presentation to the Society of his reflecting telescope, his “coming out” as it were.1) Newton’s discourse posed a direct challenge to Hooke’s views, many of which Newton had encountered in Micrographia five or six years earlier, and to his authority.2)


White Light Corpuscular Theory Vibratory Theory Compound Lens Journal Book 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 3).
    Hooke to Oldenburg, 15 February 1671/2 (Corresp., I. p. 110). This was Hooke’s response to the first of Newton’s hypothesis of light.Google Scholar
  2. 4).
    Micrographia, pp. 62–3.Google Scholar
  3. 6).
    Hooke to Oldenburg, 15 February 1671/2. Newton’s letter to Oldenburg was dated 6 February and was quickly published in the Philosophical Transactions [6 (1671/2) 3075–87, No. 80].Google Scholar
  4. 7).
    Hooke’s answer occupies nearly five pages in Birch (vol. 3, pp. 10–15). Note that Hooke is speaking of “saving the phenomena,” rather than arguing for a unique, perhaps “true”, explanation.Google Scholar
  5. 10).
    Newton to Oldenburg, 20 February (Corresp., I, 116).Google Scholar
  6. 11).
    Corresp., 1, 159.Google Scholar
  7. 12).
    PT, No. 88, p.5084, 18 November 1672.Google Scholar
  8. 13).
    Westfall (1980), p. 241.Google Scholar
  9. 14).
    Of Pardies, he wrote that “As to the Reverend Father’s calling our doctrine an hypothesis, I believe it proceded only from his using the word that first occurred to him...” (Newton to Oldenburg, 11 June 1672; Corresp., p. 171). Huygens also thought that Newton should be content to have his theory regarded as an hypothesis: “Nevertheless the thing could very well be otherwise, and it seems to me that he ought to content himslf if what he has advanced is accepted as a very likely hypothesis. The more so since even if it were true that the rays of light were, by their origin, some red, others blue, etc. there would still remain the great difficulty of explaining by the mechanical philosophy what this diversity of colors consists of.” Huygens to Oldenburg, 17 September 1672. CHO, IX, 247–51.Google Scholar
  10. 16).
    Westfall (1980), p. 247.Google Scholar
  11. 17).
    Corresp., I, 172.Google Scholar
  12. 18).
    “Seeing therefore the Improvement of Telescopes of given lengths by Refractions is desperate; I contrived heretofore a Perspective by Reflexion, using instead of an Object-glass a concave metal.” Opticks, Book one, Part I. Hooke mentioned the compound lens in the preface to the Micrographia, and publicly at the meeting of the Royal Society on 18 January 1671/2. Newton described a compound lens of similar construction between 1666 and 1668. See Bechler (1975).Google Scholar
  13. 19).
    Letter to the president, Lord Brouncker, after 11 June 1672. Corresp. I, pp. 198–205.Google Scholar
  14. 22).
    Micrographia, pp. 56–7. This seems reminiscent of Huygens’ principle, that every point on a wavefront is the source of a spherical expanding wavelet.Google Scholar
  15. 23).
    Micrographia, p. 59. Alternatively, “the pulse is made oblique to the progressive.”Google Scholar
  16. 24).
    Ibid, p. 64.Google Scholar
  17. 25).
    A good analysis of Hooke’s ideas can be found in Sabra (1967), pp. 251–264.Google Scholar
  18. 26).
    Hooke to Oldenburg, 15 February 1671/2; Corresp. I, p. 110.Google Scholar
  19. 27).
    All of these passages are in Corresp., I, 92–102.Google Scholar
  20. 28).
    Hooke to Oldenburg, 15 February 1671/2; Corresp. I, 110–114.Google Scholar
  21. 29).
    Interference: 14 and 28 March (Birch 3, 29); Newton’s Rings, 4 April (Birch 3, 410; diffraction: 7 March (Birch, 3, 19). Orr diffraction: Birch, 3, p. 194 (18 March 1675); PW, pp. 187–190, Micrographia, p. 221. Francesco Maria Grimaldi (1618–63) is usually given credit for being the first to describe diffraction.Google Scholar
  22. 30).
    Birch, 3, 43. This result, had it been successfully demonstrated, would have contradicted Newton’s theory and experimental results. The brief description of the experiment carried out on 24 April suggests that Hooke managed to obtain the result he desired: “Mr. Hooke shewed two experiments of colours with a couple of prisms. By the one it appears that one prism took off the colors, which the other had produced.” Ibid, 31. En passant, it is worth noting that we sometimes forget that there would not be any effective artificial light sources for nearly two centuries.Google Scholar
  23. 31).
    Birch, 3, 53; Corresp., I, 195.Google Scholar
  24. 32).
    There is no evidence that Hooke actually was allowed to read this longer reply to Newton’s answer: Westfall (1980), p. 247 n. 34); Corresp. I, p. 203–4.Google Scholar
  25. 33).
    E.N. da C. Andrade, in the introduction to Turnbull (1959–61), pp. xxi–xxii. The quote is on. pp. xxi–xxii.Google Scholar
  26. 34).
    Cohen (1961).Google Scholar
  27. 35).
    Westfall (1980), p. 273.Google Scholar
  28. 36).
    See fn. 30.Google Scholar
  29. 37).
    On this point see Hall (1990).Google Scholar
  30. 38).
    Huygens to Oldenburg, Corresp. I, 283, 285–6.Google Scholar
  31. 39).
    Newton to Oldenburg, 7 December 1675; Corresp. I, 362–386. For elaboration, see Chapter 7 of Westfall’s Never at Rest, especially pp. 267–271. Also the endnotes in Turnbull’s Corresp. I, 386–392. Hooke’s Diary comment is of no help: “a Discourse of Mr. Newtons read about Light.” (9 December 1675/6).Google Scholar
  32. 40).
    Corresp, I, 360–1.Google Scholar
  33. 41).
    “An Hypothesis explaining the Properties of Light discoursed of in my severall Papers.” Corresp. I, 362–386. Also Birch, 3, pp. 248 ff.Google Scholar
  34. 42).
    Birch , 3, 269. Hooke made very much the same comment on Newton’s theory of planetary motion. Everything we know of Hooke suggests that he really believed these assertions.Google Scholar
  35. 43).
    Corresp., I, pp. 404–406.Google Scholar
  36. 44).
    Hooke to Newton, 20 January 1675/6. Corresp. I, pp. 412–3. In his Diary for that date he wrote “A letter also of Mr. Newtons seeming to quarrel from Oldenburg fals suggestions,” and a few lines later, “Wrot letter to Mr. Newton about Oldenburg kindle cole.” This was the first of 16 letters between the two. This exchange of letters in January–February 1675/6 was prompted by Hooke’s concern that Oldenburg may have misrepresented his comments on Newton’s optical theories. Hooke wrote, referring obviously to Oldenburg, that “you might have been some way or other misinformed concerning me and this suspicion was the more prevalent with me, when I called to mind the experience I have formerly had of the like sinister practices.” and that “...the collision of two hard-to-yield contenders may produce light [,] yet if they be put together by the ears of other’s hands and incentives, it will produce rather ill concomitant heat which serves for no other use but... kindle cole.” The sentiment Hooke expressed, of public controversy producing more heat than light, has been called the “kindle-cole” principle, or the “Hooke-Newton-Merton” principle, and expresses the idea that scientists ought to avoid airing their disagreements in public. Or, as Bernward Joerges put it, “the distorting effects of public... polemics among men of science.” (Joerges, 1990). Hooke went on to praise Newton’s work, saying that “... you have gone farther in that affair much than I did...” and that there was no “more able person to inquire into than yourself, who are every way accomplished to compleat, rectify, and reform what were the sentiments of my younger studies, which I designed to have done somewhat at myself, if my other more troublesome employments would have permitted, though I am sufficiently sensible it would have been with abilities much inferior to yours.” It was in the 6 February letter to Hooke that Newton uttered his famous “If I have seen further it is by standing on ye sholders of Giants.” (Corresp., I, 416). Some have seen this as an insult, but this was surely not the case.Google Scholar
  37. 45).
    Corresp., I, 416–7. Manuel has provocatively described the exchange this way: “Here were two former country boys, now men of genius at the height of their powers, aping the manners of Restoration courtiers — flattering each other, overpraising, scraping and bowing,...” Manuel (1968), p. 143. It was in the 6 February letter to Hooke that Newton uttered his famous “If I have seen further it is by standing on ye sholders of Giants.” (Corresp., I, 416). Some have seen this as an insult, but this was surely not the case.Google Scholar
  38. 46).
    Hooke to Newton, 20 January; Newton to Hooke, 5 February. Corresp., I, 412, 416.Google Scholar
  39. 47).
    Westfall (1980), p. 274.Google Scholar
  40. 50).
    See Sabra (1967), pp. 195–7, and elsewhere.Google Scholar
  41. 51).
    Journal Book for 19 February 1689/90Google Scholar
  42. 52).
    “Instead of proceeding farther in the Method he had proposed to himself, of explaining how to Rays or Pulses of Light from Luminous Bodies are Reflected, Refracted or Inflected... which several Subjects I suppose he design’d to treat of, though I do not find that he ever did... being diverted by other intervening Subjects, which carried his Thoughts other ways...” Waller, PW, 128.Google Scholar
  43. 53).
    In July 1694 the Society asked Newton if he would “please to Communicate to the Society in order to be Published his Treatise of Light and Colours...” Journal Book, 4 July 1694).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Birkhäuser Verlag AG 2009

Personalised recommendations