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  • Print publication year: 1999
  • Online publication date: April 2013

Historical introduction


THE physical principles underlying the optical phenomena with which we are concerned in this treatise were substantially formulated before 1900. Since that year, optics, like the rest of physics, has undergone a thorough revolution by the discovery of the quantum of energy. While this discovery has profoundly affected our views about the nature of light, it has not made the earlier theories and techniques superfluous; rather, it has brought out their limitations and defined their range of validity. The extension of the older principles and methods and their applications to very many diverse situations has continued, and is continuing with undiminished intensity.

In attempting to present in an orderly way the knowledge acquired over a period of several centuries in such a vast field it is impossible to follow the historical development, with its numerous false starts and detours. It is therefore deemed necessary to record separately, in this preliminary section, the main landmarks in the evolution of ideas concerning the nature of light.

The philosophers of antiquity speculated about the nature of light, being familiar with burning glasses, with the rectilinear propagation of light, and with refraction and reflection. The first systematic writings on optics of which we have any definite knowledge are due to the Greek philosophers and mathematicians [Empedocles (c. 490–430 BC), Euclid (c. 300 BC)].

Amongst the founders of the new philosophy, Rene Descartes (1596-1650) may be singled out for mention as having formulated views on the nature of light on the basis of his metaphysical ideas.