A Source Book in Animal Biology

Author: Isaac Newton  | Date: 1802

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Beginnings of Modern Theory of Vision and Color Vision

Isaac NEWTON and Thomas YOUNG. Hypothesis III in Young’s On the theory of light and colors, in Philosophical Tramactions of the Royal Society, p. 12, London, 1802.

The Sensation of different Colours depends on the different frequency of Vibrations excited by Light in the Retina.


"The objector’s hypothesis, as to the fundamental part of it, is not against me. That fundamental supposition is, that the parts of bodies, when briskly agitated, do excite vibrations in the ether, which are propagated every way from those bodies in straight lines, and cause a sensation of light by beating and dashing against the bottom of the eye, something after the manner that vibrations in the air cause a sensation of sound by beating against the organs of hearing. Now, the most free and natural application of this hypothesis to the solution of phenomena I take to be this—that the agitated parts of bodies, according to their several sizes, figures, and motions, do excite vibrations in the ether of various depths or bignesses, which, being promiscuously propagated through that medium to our eyes, effect in us a sensation of light of white colour; but if by any means those of unequal bignesses be separated from one another, the largest beget a sensation of a red colour, the least or shortest of a deep violet, and the intermediate ones of intermediate colours, much after the manner that bodies, according to their several sizes, shapes, and motions, excite vibrations in the air of various bignesses, which, according to those bignesses, make several tones in sound: that the largest vibrations are best able to overcome the resistance of a refracting superficies, and so to break through it with least refraction; whence the vibrations of several bignesses, that is the rays of several colours, which are blended together in light, must be parted from one another by refraction, and so cause the phenomena of prisms and other refracting substances; and that it depends on the thickness of a thin transparent plate or bubble, whether a vibration shall be reflected at its further superficies, or transmitted; so that, according to the number of vibrations, interceding the two superficies, they may be reflected or transmitted for many successive thicknesses. And, since the vibrations which make blue and violet are supposed shorter than those which make red and yellow, they must be reflected at a less thickness of the plate; which is sufficient to explicate all the ordinary phenomena of those plates or bubbles and also of all natural bodies, whose parts are like so many fragments of such plates. These seem to be the most plain, genuine, and necessary conditions of this hypothesis; and they agree so justly with my theory, that, if the animadversor think fit to apply them, he need not, on that account, apprehend a divorce from it; but yet, how he will defend it from other difficulties I know not." (Phil. Trans. Vol. VII, p. 5088. Abr. Vol. I, p. 145. Nov. 1672.)


[Three are quoted by Young of which only the second and third are pertinent.—Ed.]

"To explain colours, I suppose, that as bodies of various sizes, densities, or sensations, do by percussion or other action excite sounds of various tones, and consequently vibrations in the air of different bigness; so the rays of light, by infringing on the stiff refracting superficies, excite vibrations in the ether, of various bigness; the biggest, strongest, or most potent rays, the largest vibrations; and others shorter, according to their bigness, strength, or power: and therefore the ends of the capillamenta of the optic nerve, which pave or face the retina, being such refracting superficies, when the rays impinge upon them, they must there excite these vibrations, which vibrations (like those of sound in a trunk or trumpet) will run along the aqueous pores or crystalline pith of the capillamenta, through the optic nerves into the sensorium; and there, I suppose, affect the sense with various colors, according to their bigness and mixture; the biggest with the strongest colors, reds and yellows; the least with the weakest, blues and violets; the middle with green, and a confusion of all with white—much after the manner that, in the sense of hearing, nature makes use of aerial vibrations of several bignesses to generate sounds of divers tones, for the analogy of nature is to be observed." (Birch, Vol. III, p. 62. Dec. 1675).

"Considering the lastingness of the motions excited in the bottom of the eye by light, are they not of a vibrating nature? Do not the most refrangible rays excite the shortest vibrations the least refrangible the largest? May not the harmony and discord of colors arise from the proportions of the vibrations propagated through the fibres of the optic nerve, into the brain, as the harmony and discord of sounds arise from the proportions of the vibrations of the air?" (Optics, Qu. 16, 13, 14).

Scholium. Since, for the reason here assigned by Newton, it is probable that the motion of the retina is rather of a vibratory than of an undulatory nature, the frequency of the vibrations must be dependent on the constitution of this substance. Now, as it is almost impossible to conceive each sensitive point of the retina to contain an infinite number of particles, each capable of vibrating in perfect unison with every possible undulation, it becomes necessary to suppose the number limited, for instance, to the three principal colours, red, yellow, and blue, of Which the undulations are related in magnitude nearly as the numbers 8, 7, and 6; and that each of the particles is capable of being put in motion less or more forcibly by undulations differing less or more from a perfect unison; for instance, the undulations of green light being nearly in the ratio of 6½ will affect equally the particles in unison with yellow and blue, and produce the same effect as light composed of those two species, and each sensitive filament of the nerve may consist of three portions, one for each principal colour.


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Chicago: Isaac Newton, "Beginnings of Modern Theory of Vision and Color Vision," A Source Book in Animal Biology in A Source Book in Animal Biology, ed. Thomas S. Hall (New York: Hafner Publishing Company, 1951), 291–294. Original Sources, accessed July 6, 2022, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=K1VVHB7VJDAE6C7.

MLA: Newton, Isaac. "Beginnings of Modern Theory of Vision and Color Vision." A Source Book in Animal Biology, in A Source Book in Animal Biology, edited by Thomas S. Hall, New York, Hafner Publishing Company, 1951, pp. 291–294. Original Sources. 6 Jul. 2022. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=K1VVHB7VJDAE6C7.

Harvard: Newton, I, 'Beginnings of Modern Theory of Vision and Color Vision' in A Source Book in Animal Biology. cited in 1951, A Source Book in Animal Biology, ed. , Hafner Publishing Company, New York, pp.291–294. Original Sources, retrieved 6 July 2022, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=K1VVHB7VJDAE6C7.