A History of Science
Tome I
Tome II
Tome III Tome IV

Book 2, chapter XI
Newton and the composition of light
The nature of color
Having thus proved the composition of light, Newton took up an exhaustive discussion as to colors, which cannot be entered into at length here. Some of his remarks on the subject of compound colors, however, may be stated in part. Newton's views are of particular interest in this connection, since, as we have already pointed out, the question as to what constituted color could not be agreed upon by the philosophers. Some held that color was an integral part of the substance; others maintained that it was simply a reflection from the surface; and no scientific explanation had been generally accepted. Newton concludes his paper as follows:

"I might add more instances of this nature, but I shall conclude with the general one that the colors of all natural bodies have no other origin than this, 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 colors. For by that means any body may be made to appear of any color. They have there no appropriate color, but ever appear of the color 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 color. Minium appeareth there of any color indifferently with which 'tis illustrated, but yet most luminous in red; and so Bise appeareth indifferently of any color with which 'tis illustrated, but yet most luminous in blue. And therefore Minium reflecteth rays of any color, but most copiously those indued 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 color. 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 colors is manifest, because they have no power to change or alter the colors of any sort of rays incident apart, but put on all colors indifferently with which they are enlightened."[2]

This epoch-making paper aroused a storm of opposition. Some of Newton's opponents criticised his methods, others even doubted the truth of his experiments. There was one slight mistake in Newton's belief that all prisms would give a spectrum of exactly the same length, and it was some time before he corrected this error. Meanwhile he patiently met and answered the arguments of his opponents until he began to feel that patience was no longer a virtue. At one time he even went so far as to declare that, once he was "free of this business," he would renounce scientific research forever, at least in a public way. Fortunately for the world, however, he did not adhere to this determination, but went on to even greater discoveries - which, it may be added, involved still greater controversies.

In commenting on Newton's discovery of the composition of light, Voltaire said: "Sir Isaac Newton has demonstrated to the eye, by the bare assistance of a prism, that light is a composition of colored rays, which, being united, form white color. A single ray is by him divided into seven, which all fall upon a piece of linen or a sheet of white paper, in their order one above the other, and at equal distances. The first is red, the second orange, the third yellow, the fourth green, the fifth blue, the sixth indigo, the seventh a violet purple. Each of these rays transmitted afterwards by a hundred other prisms will never change the color it bears; in like manner as gold, when completely purged from its dross, will never change afterwards in the crucible."[3].





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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.