A Source Book in Physics

Author: Isaac Newton  | Date: 1704

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In the year 1666, (at which time I applied myself to the grinding of optick glasses of other figures than spherical) I procured me a triangular glass prism, to try therewith the celebrated phaenomena of colours. And in order thereto, having darkened my chamber, and made a small hole in my window-shuts, to let in a convenient quantity of the sun’s light, I placed my prism at its entrance, that it might be thereby refracted to the opposite wall. It was at first a very pleasing divertisement, to view the vivid and intense colours produced thereby; but after a while applying my self to consider them more circumspectly, I became surprised, to see them in an oblong form; which, according to the received laws of refraction, I expected should have been circular. They were terminated at the sides with straight lines, but at the ends, the decay of light was so gradual that it was difficult to determine justly, what was their figure; yet they seemed semicircular.

Comparing the length of this colour’d Spectrum with its breadth, I found it about five times greater, a disproportion so extravagant, that it excited me to a more than ordinary curiosity to examining from whence it might proceed. I could scarce think, that the various thicknesses of the glass, or the termination with shadow or darkness, could have any influence on light to produce such an effect; yet I thought it not amiss, first to examine those circumstances, and so try’d what would happen by transmitting light through parts of the glass of divers thicknesses, or through holes in the window of diverse bignesses, or by setting the prism without, so that the light might pass through it, and be refracted, before it was terminated by the hole: But I found none of those circumstances material. The fashion of the colours was in all these cases the same.

Then I suspected, whether by any unevenness in the glass or other contingent irregularity, these colours might be thus dilated. And to try this, I took another prism like the former, and so placed it, that the light passing through them both might be refracted contrary ways, and so by the latter returned into that course from which the former had diverted it. For by this means I thought the regular effects of the first prism would be destroyed by the second prism, but the irregular ones more augmented, by the multiplicity of refractions. The event was, that the light, which by the first prism was diffused into an oblong form was by the second reduced into an orbicular one, with as much regularity as when it did not at all pass through them.

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Then I began to suspect, whether the rays, after their trajection through the prism, did not move in curve lines, and according to their more or less curvity tend to divers parts of the wall. And it increased my suspicion, when I remembered that I had often seen a tennis ball struck with an oblique racket, describe such a curve line. For, a circular as well as a progressive motion being communicated to it by that stroke, its parts on that side where the motions conspire, must press and beat the contiguous air more violently than on the other, and there excite a reluctancy and reaction of the air proportionably greater. And for the same reason, if the rays of light should possibly be globular bodies, and by their oblique passage out of one medium into another, acquire a circulating motion, they ought to feel the greater resistance from the ambient ether, on that side, where the motions conspire, and thence be continually bowed to the other. But notwithstanding this plausible ground of suspicion, when I came to examine it, I could observe no such curvity in them. And besides (which was enough for my purpose) I observed, that the difference ’twixt the length of the image, and the diameter of the hole, through which the light was transmitted, was proportionable to their distance.

The gradual removal of these suspicions at length led me to the Experimentum Crucis, which was this: I took two boards, and placed one of them close behind the prism at the window, so that the light might pass through a small hole, made in it for the purpose, and fall on the other board, which I placed at about 12 feet distance, having first made a small hole in it also, for some of the incident light to pass through. Then l placed another prism behind this second board, so that the light trajected through both the boards might pass through that also, and be again refracted before it arrived at the wall. This done, I took the first prism in my hand, and turned it to and fro slowly about its axis, so much as to make the several parts of the image cast, on the second board, successively pass through the hole in it, that I might observe to what places on the wall the second prism would refract them. And I saw by the variation of those places, that the light, tending to that end of the image, towards which the refraction of the first prism was made, did in the second prism suffer a refraction considerably greater than the light tending to the other end. And so the true cause of the length of that image was detected to be no other, than that light is not similar or homogenial, but consists of Difform Rays, some of which are more Refrangible than others; so that without any difference in their incidence on the same medium, some shall be more Refracted than others; and therefore that, according to their particular Degrees of Refrangibility, they were transmitted through the prism to divers parts of the opposite wall.

Now I shall proceed to acquaint you with another more notable Difformity in its rays, wherein the origin of colours is unfolded: concerning which I shall lay down the doctrine first, and then for its examination give you an instance or two of the experiments, as a specimen of the rest.

The doctrine you will find comprehended and illustrated in the following propositions:

1. As the rays of light differ in degrees of refrangibility so they also differ in their disposition to exhibit, this or that particular colour. Colours are not qualifications of light, derived from refractions, or reflections of natural bodies (as ’tis generally believed) but original and connate properties, which in divers rays are divers. Some rays are disposed to exhibit a red colour and no other; some a yellow and no other, some a green and no other, and so of the rest. Nor are there only rays proper and particular to the more eminent colours, but even to all their intermediate gradations.

2. To the same degree of refrangibility ever belongs the same colour, and to the same colour ever belongs the same degree of refrangibility. The least refrangible rays are all disposed to exhibit a red colour, and contrarily those rays which are disposed to exhibit a red colour, are all the least refrangible: so the most refrangible rays are all disposed to exhibit a deep violet colour, and contrarily those which are apt to exhibit such a violet colour are all the most refrangible. And so to all the intermediate colours in a continued series belong intermediate degrees of refrangibility. And this Analogy ’twixt colours and refrangibility is very precise and strict; the rays always either exactly agreeing in both, or proportionally disagreeing in both.

3. The species of colour, and degree of refrangibility proper to any particular sort of rays, is not mutable by refraction, nor by reflection from natural bodies, nor by any other cause that I could yet observe. When any one sort of rays hath been well parted from those of other kinds, it hath afterwards obstinately retained its colour, notwithstanding my utmost endeavors to change it. I have refracted it with prisms, and reflected it with bodies, which in daylight were of other colours; I have intercepted it with the coloured film of air, interceeded two compressed plates of glass; transmitted it through coloured mediums, and through mediums irradiated with other sorts of rays, and diversely terminated it; and yet could never produce any new colour out of it. It would by contracting or dilating become more brisk, or faint, and by the loss of many rays, in some cases very obscure and dark; but I could never see it changed in specie.

4. Yet seeming transmutations of colours may be made, where there is any mixture of divers sorts of rays. For in such mixtures, the component colours appear not, but, by their mutual allaying each other, constitute a midling colour. And therefore, if by refraction, or any other of the aforesaid causes, the difform rays, latent in such a mixture, be separated, there shall emerge colours different from the colour of the composition. Which colours are not new generated, but only made apparent by being parted; for if they be again entirely mixt and blended together, they will again compose that colour, which they did before separation. And for the same reason, transmutations made by the convening of divers colours are not real; for when the difform rays are again severed, they will exhibit the very same colours which they did before they entered the composition; as you see blue and yellow powders, when finely mixed, appear to the naked eye, green, and yet the colours of the component corpuscles are not thereby really transmuted, but only blended. For when viewed with a good microscope they still appear blue and yellow interspersedly.

5. There are therefore two sorts of colours. The one original and simple, and the other compounded of these. The original or primary colours are red, yellow, green, blue, and a violet-purple, together with orange, indico, and an indefinite variety of intermediate gradations.

6. The same colours in specie with these primary ones, may be also produced by composition. For a mixture of yellow and blue makes green; of red and yellow makes orange; of orange and yellowish green makes yellow. And in general, if any two colours be mixed, which in the series of those generated by the prism are not too far distant one from another, they by their mutual alloy compound that colour, which in the said series appeareth in the midway between them. But those which are situated at too great a distance, do not so. Orange and indico produce not the intermediate green, nor scarlet and green the intermediate yellow.

7. But the most surprising, and wonderful composition was that of whiteness. There is no one sort of rays which alone can exhibit this. ’Tis ever compounded, and to its composition, are requisite all the aforesaid primary colours, mixed in a due proportion. I have often with admiration beheld that all the colours of the prism being made to converge, and thereby to be again mixed, as they were in the light before it was incident upon the prism, reproduced light, entirely and perfectly white, and not at all sensibly differing from a direct light of the sun, unless when the glasses, I used, were not sufficiently clear; for then they would a little incline it to their colour.

8. Hence therefore it comes to pass, that whiteness is the usual colour of light; for light is a confused aggregate of rays indued with all sorts of colours, as they were promiscuously darted from the various parts of luminous bodies. And of such a confused aggregate, as I said, is generated whiteness, if there be a due proportion of the ingredients; but if any one predominate, the light must incline to that colour; as it happens in the blue flame of brimstone; the yellow flame of a candle; and the various colours of the fixed stars.

9. These things considered, the manner how colours are produced by the prism is evident. For, of the rays, constituting the incident light, since those which differ in colour proportionally differ in refrangibility, they by their unequal refractions must be severed and dispersed into an oblong form in an orderly succession, from the least refracted scarlet, to the most refracted violet. And for the same reason it is, that objects when looked upon through a prism, appear coloured. For the difform rays, by their unequal refractions, are made to diverge towards several parts of the Retina, and these express the images of things coloured, as in the former case they did the sun’s image upon a wall. And by this inequality of refractions, they become not only coloured, but also very confused and indistinct.

10. Why the colours of the rainbow appear in falling drops of rain, is also from hence evident. For those drops which refract the rays, disposed to appear purple, in greatest quantity to the spectator’s eye, refract the rays of other sorts so much less, as to make them pass beside it; and such are the drops on the inside of the primary bow, and on the outside of the secondary or exterior one. So those drops, which refract in greatest plenty the rays, apt to appear red, toward the spectator’s eye, refract those of other sorts so much more, as to make them pass beside it; and such are the drops on the exterior part of the primary, and interior part of the secondary bow.

11. The odd phaenomena of an infusion of Lignum Nephriticum, leaf-gold, fragments of coloured glass, and some other transparently coloured bodies, appearing in one position of one colour, and of another in another, are on these grounds no longer riddles. For those are substances apt to reflect one sort of light, and transmit another; as may be seen in a dark room, by illuminating them with familiar or uncompounded light. For then they appear of that colour only, with which they are illuminated, but yet in one position more vivid and luminous than in another, accordingly as they are disposed more or less to reflect or transmit the incident colour.

12. From hence also is manifest the reason of an unexpected experiment which Mr. Hook, somewhere in his Micrography relates to have made with two wedge-like transparent vessels, filled the one with a red, the other with a blue liquor: namely, that though they were severally transparent enough, yet both together became opake; for if one transmitted only red, and the other only blue, no rays could pass through both.

13. I might add more instances of this nature, but I shall conclude with this general one. That the colours of all natural bodies have no other origin than is, that they are variously qualified, to reflect one sort of light in greater plenty than another. And this I have experimented in a dark room, by illuminating those bodies with uncompounded light of divers colours. For by that means any body may be made to appear of any colour. They have there no appropriate colour, but ever appear of the colour of the light cast upon them, but yet with this difference, that they are most brisk and vivid in the light of their own daylight colour. Minium appeareth there of any colour indifferently, with which it is illustrated, but yet most luminous in red, and so bise appeareth indifferently of any colour, but yet most luminous in blue. And therefore minium reflecteth rays of any colour, but most copiously those endowed with red, and consequently when illustrated with daylight; that is, with all sorts of rays promiscuously blended, those qualified with red shall abound most in the reflected light, and by their prevalence cause it to appear of that colour. And for the same reason bise, reflecting blue most copiously, shall appear blue by the excess of those rays in its reflected light; and the like of other bodies. And that this is the entire and adequate cause of their colours, is manifest, because they have no power to change or alter the colours of any sort of rays incident apart, but put on all colours indifferently, with which they are enlightened.

These things being so, it can be no longer disputed, whether there be colours in the dark, or whether they be the qualities of the objects we see, no nor perhaps, whether light be a body. For, since colours are the qualities of light, having its rays for their entire and immediate subject, how can we think those rays qualities also, unless one quality may be the subject of, and sustain another; which in effect is to call it substance. We should not know bodies for substances; were it not for their sensible qualities, and the principal of those being now found due to something else, we have as good reason to believe that to be a substance also.

Besides, who ever thought any quality to be a heterogeneous aggregate, such as light is discovered to be? But to determine more absolutely what light is, after what manner refracted, and by what modes or actions it produceth in our minds the phantasms of colours, is not so easie; and I shall not mingle conjectures with certainties.


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Chicago: Isaac Newton, "Dispersion of Light," A Source Book in Physics in A Source Book in Physics, ed. William Frances Magie (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1935), 298–305. Original Sources, accessed July 6, 2022, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=AIGS75FQAQIVGBP.

MLA: Newton, Isaac. "Dispersion of Light." A Source Book in Physics, Vol. I, in A Source Book in Physics, edited by William Frances Magie, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1935, pp. 298–305. Original Sources. 6 Jul. 2022. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=AIGS75FQAQIVGBP.

Harvard: Newton, I, 'Dispersion of Light' in A Source Book in Physics. cited in 1935, A Source Book in Physics, ed. , Harvard University Press, Cambridge, pp.298–305. Original Sources, retrieved 6 July 2022, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=AIGS75FQAQIVGBP.