Exhibit | Tripping the Light Fantastic: Experimental Optics in the Victorian Era

Opt1cIn 1704, Isaac Newton published the first scientific work on light. Working carefully but not very cautiously, Newton began compiling the results of hundreds of experiments he performed in the quiet space of his own rooms at Cambridge over the course of four decades, from the 1660s forward. Many of these experiments involved Newton using his own eyes as the experimental apparatus, through such risky maneuvers as staring directly at the sun and slipping a small knife around the side of the eyeball to see how the additional pressure he exerted would affect his sight. Despite having to spend months in the dark to allow his eyes to recover from the stress of these activities, he gained enormous insight from these and other, more standard, experiments. The resulting book, entitled Opticks, broke new ground in science and led to the establishment of a new field for study of the physical properties of light.


The devices on display at the John Hay Library date from the second half of the 19th century and were purchased for use by faculty and students in the Brown Physics Department. They were eventually transferred to the Library once technological advances had rendered them obsolete for instructional purposes in the field. Still, their mechanical precision was important at the time of their creation and would have been the envy of Newton and his 17th century colleagues at the Royal Society. After all, if only Newton had had the automatic spectroscope, he would not have had to stick that knife into his own eye!

Dates: March 29 – May 15, 2016
TimeLibrary Hours
Location: Lobby Cases, John Hay Library, 20 Prospect Street, Providence