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History of Optics

   Ancients used mirrors of polished copper, bronze, and speculum.

  • Chinese
Mo zi 墨子 (china, born in 486BC~476BC, died in 420BC~390BC roughly), a great ideologist and politician and nature scientist. In his mo lection, the first documentary about optics in the world, described the basic optical knowledge, including the definition and creating of vision (???), propagation of light in straight line, pinhole imaging, the relationship between object and image in plane mirror, convex mirror and concave mirror.
  • The first book about optics
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Euclid ( Greece, 330BC-275BC) In his Optica he noted that light travels in straight lines and described the law of reflection. He believed that vision involves rays going from the eyes to the object seen and he studied the relationship between the apparent sizes of objects and the angles that they subtend at the eye.

  • Early researching of optical refraction

Claudius Ptolemy ( Greece, 90-168). In a twelfth-century Latin translation from the Arabic that is assigned to Ptolemy, a study of refraction, including atmospheric refraction, was described. It was suggested that the angle of refraction is proportional to the angle of incidence.


  • Alhazen optics

Alhazen ( Arabia, 965-1039) In his investigations, he used spherical and parabolic mirrors and was aware of spherical aberration. He also investigated the magnification produced by lenses and atmospheric refraction. His work was translated into Latin and became accessible to later European scholars.

  • Rainbow with raindrop

Roger Bacon ( England, 1214-1292). A follower of Grosseteste at Oxford, Bacon extended Grosseteste's work on optics. He considered that the speed of light is finite and that it is propagated through a medium in a manner analogous to the propagation of sound. In his Opus Maius, Bacon described his studies of the magnification of small objects using convex lenses and suggested that they could find application in the correction of defective eyesight. He attributed the phenomenon of the rainbow to the reflection of sunlight from individual raindrops.

  • Artist with optics

As a world renown artist and scientist, Leonardo da Vinci ’s ( Italy, 1452 - 1519) visionary observations and sketches pioneered the study of human anatomy paving the way of future discoveries in the medical field. He expatiated on physiological optics about human eye.

  • The author of Dioptrice

Johannes Kepler ( Germany,1571-1630). In his book Ad Vitellionem Paralipomena, Kepler suggested that the intensity of light from a point source varies inversely with the square of the distance from the source, that light can be propagated over an unlimited distance and that the speed of propagation is infinite. He explained vision as a consequence of the formation of an image on the retina by the lens in the eye and correctly described the causes of long-sightedness and short-sightedness. 
In his Dioptrice, Kepler presented an explanation of the principles involved in the convergent/divergent lens microscopes and telescopes. In the same treatise, he suggested that a telescope could be constructed using a converging objective and a converging eye lens and described a combination of lenses that would later become known as the telephoto lens. He discovered total internal reflection, but was unable to find a satisfactory relationship between the angle of incidence and the angle of refraction.

  • Snell's law

Willebrord van Roijen Snell ( Netherlands ,1580-1626) .Although he discovered the law of refraction, a basis of modern geometric optics, in 1621, he did not publish it.

Snell's discoveries about refraction were not stated in terms of the speed of light. The speed of light in empty space was not determined until 1676, and the speed in water was not measured until 1850. From his observations, however, Snell defined the index of refraction as the ratio of the sine of the angle of incidence to the sine of the angle of refraction. This relationship is known as Snell's law.

  • Descartes

The mathematician and philosopher Rene Descartes (French, 1596-1650) published Snell's work in 1637 in his La Dioptrique . Descartes determine the angle of refraction and demonstrated the sine law of optical refraction which Willebrord Snell had previously derived.

  • Wave nature of light

Francesco Maria Grimaldi ( Italy,1618 - 1663). In his Physico-Mathesis de lumine, coloribus et iride, published in 1655, described the observations of diffraction when he passed white light through small apertures. Grimaldi concluded that light is a fluid that exhibits wave-like motion.





  • Hooke’s Micrographia

Robert Hooke ( England,1635 - 1703) was interested in the experiment of Grimaldi, he repeated it. In 1655, Hooke published his treatise, Micrographia. In the book, Hooke described his observations with a compound microscope having a converging objective lens and a converging eye lens. In the same book, he described his observations of the colours produced in flakes of mica, soap bubbles and films of oil on water. He recognised that the colour produced in mica flakes is related to their thickness but was unable to establish any definite relationship between thickness and colour. Hooke advocated a wave theory for the propagation of light.

  • Newton 's theory -- particle nature of light

Isaac Newton ( England, 1642 - 1727) had howling success in optics. In 1666 ,when he was on holiday at home, he discovered the splitting up of white light into its component colours when it is passed through a prism. In 1668, as a solution to the problem of chromatic aberration exhibited by refracting telescopes, Newton constructed the first reflecting telescope. In 1672, Newton's earlier observations on the dispersion of sunlight as it passed through a prism were reported to the Royal Society. Newton concluded that sunlight is composed of light of different colours which are refracted by glass to different extents. It was the beginning of physical optics.


Newton ’s Opticks was published in 1704. In the book, Newton put forward his view that light is particle but that the particle are able to excite waves in the aether. His adherence to a particle nature of light was based primarily on the presumption that light travels in straight lines whereas waves can bend into the region of shadow.
  • Huygens theory

Christiaan Huygens ( Netherlands, 1629-1695), a physical scientist and astronomer and mathematician . In his Traite de Lumiere in 1690, Huygens propounded his wave theory of light. He considered that light is transmitted through an all-pervading aether that is made up of small elastic particles, each of which can act as a secondary source of wavelets. On this basis, Huygens explained many of the known propagation characteristics of light, including the double refraction in calcite discovered by Bartholinus in 1669. He breaked up the monopolization of Newton’s particle theory of light.

  • Thomas Young's Double Slit Experiment

Thomas Young (England, 1773 - 1829). Performed an experiment that strongly infered the wave nature of light in1801. Because he believed that light was composed of waves, Young reasoned that some type of interaction would occur when two light waves met. This interactive tutorial explores how coherent light waves interact when passed through two closely spaced slits.



  • The polarization of light

Etienne Louis Malus (France, 1755 - 1812). In 1808, as a result of observing light reflected from the windows of the Palais Luxembourg in Paris through a calcite crystal as it is rotated, Malus discovered an effect that later led to the conclusion that light can be polarized by reflection.





  • Brewster's angle

David Brewster (Scotland ,1781-1868) . He is noted especially for his research into the polarization of light. In 1814, Brewster showed that there was a relationship between the angle of incidence at which the light ray reflected from an interface is completely plane polarized: the index of refraction was equal to the tangent of the angle.




  • Controversy

Dominique Francois Jean Arago (France,1786-1853).During the 19th century, there was a great controversy regarding the nature of light--either light existed as particle, or as a wave. Arago is best known for helping resolve this debate. Originally a supporter of the particle theory, polarization research he conducted out in collaboration with Augustin-Jean Fresnel changed his mind. In 1811, the pair discovered that two beams of light polarized in perpendicular directions do not interfere, eventually resulting in the development of a transverse theory of light waves.

  • The greatest optical scientist in the 19th century

Augustin Jean Fresnel (France,1788-1827). Independently rediscovered interference and begins to study the wave theory of light.

Diffraction effects, such as indistinct edges of shadows and shadow fringes, are known to have been observed as early as the 17th century. However, before the discovery of interference in 1801, neither the wave theory nor the particle theory could offer a suitable explanation for the effects.

In 1816, Fresnel demonstrated that the various diffraction phenomena are fully explained by the interference of light waves. As a result of investigations by Fresnel and Arago on the interference of polarized light and their subsequent interpretation by Thomas Young, it was concluded that light waves are transverse and not, as had been previously thought, longitudinal.

In 1817, the French Academy of Sciences decided to offer a prize for the best essay covering the wave theory of light. In 1819, Fresnel (one of two entries) wins the prize with a stunning 135-page comprehensive treatment of the wave theory of light, refuting completely the particle theory of light.

  • Poisson’s Spot

Siméon-Denis Poisson (France, 1781-1840). In 1819, a mathematician of the first rank, was one of the judging panel of the French Academy of Sciences about the best essay covering the wave theory of light in 1817. He also happened to be a very strong believer in Newton's particle theory of light and was able, using Fresnel's mathematics, to derive a prediction he was sure would destroy the wave theory of light: the famous Poisson's Spot. Here is what he said:

"Let parallel light impinge on an opaque disk, the surroundings being perfectly transparent. The disk casts a shadow -- of course -- but the very centre of that shadow will be bright. Apparently, it was impossible. "

The judging committee chairman, Arago, arranged for an experiment to see if the predicted spot was there. --the Poisson's Spot was found. So, with a prediction intended to destroy the wave theory, Poisson has succeeded in advancing it greatly.

  • Light is a form of electromagnetic wave

James Clerk Maxwell (Scotland, 1831-1879). In 1865 from his studies of the equations describing electric and magnetic fields, it was found that the speed of an electromagnetic wave should, within experimental error, be the same as the speed of light. Maxwell concluded that light is a form of electromagnetic wave.




Albert Einstein (Germany, 1879-1955).Strongly believed the consistent nature in all physicses, so Maxwell’s electromagnetics theory should be consistent with Newton’s classical mechanics theory.

In 1905, Einstein published the special theory of relativity which is based on the remarkable suggestion that the speed of light remains constant for all observers independent of their relative velocities. However it had its origin from the time that Einstein was a boy when he tried to imagine what would happen if he were moving at the same speed as a beam of light. Of course if the notion that the speed of light is the same for all observers seems hard to understand, then so would the classical view which would suggest that if one could travel faster than light then one could set out on a journey and arrive soon enough to be able to look back and see oneself setting out!

At the same year, he explained the photoelectric effect on the basis that light is quantized, the quanta subsequently becoming known as photons. The theory of light quanta was a strong indication of wave-particle duality, the concept that physical systems can display both wave-like and particle-like properties, and that was used as a fundamental principle by the creators of quantum mechanics. A complete picture of the photoelectric effect was only obtained after the maturity of quantum mechanics.
In 1915 Einstein published the general theory of relativity which predicted the bending of rays of light passing through a gravitational field.

In 1916 Einstein offered stimulation theory of light that the stimulated emission of light is a process that should occur in addition to absorption and spontaneous emission, it was the first conceive of 'laser'. In 1915 Einstein published the general theory of relativity which predicted the bending of rays of light passing through a gravitational field.

In 1916 Einstein offered stimulation theory of light that the stimulated emission of light is a process that should occur in addition to absorption and spontaneous emission, it was the first conceive of 'laser'.


  • The development of modern optics


In 1926, Michelson (America,1852-1931) carried out his last and most accurate experiment to determine the velocity of light. Using a light path of length 35 km from the Mount Wilson observatory to the telescope on Mount San Antonio, he found the value of 299,796 km per sec.

In 1939, Walter Geffcken (Germany, 1872-1950), described the transmission interference filter.

In 1948, Dennis Gabor (Hungary, 1900-1979), described the principles of wavefront reconstruction, later to become known as holography.

In 1958, Arthur L Schawlow (America,1921-1999) and Charles H Townes (America,1915-) published a paper entitled "Infrared and Optical Masers" in which it was proposed that the maser principle could be extended to the visible region of the spectrum to give rise to what later became known as a 'laser'.