Science and Society: The Case of Acceptance of Newtonian Optics in the Eighteenth Century


The present paper presents a historical study on the acceptance of Newton’s corpuscular theory of light in the early eighteenth century. Isaac Newton first published his famous book Opticks in 1704. After its publication, it became quite popular and was an almost mandatory presence in cultural life of Enlightenment societies. However, Newton’s optics did not become popular only via his own words and hands, but also via public lectures and short books with scientific contents devoted to general public (including women) that emerged in the period as a sort of entertainment business. Lectures and writers stressed the inductivist approach to the study of nature and presented Newton’s ideas about optics as they were consensual among natural philosophers in the period. The historical case study presented in this paper illustrates relevant aspects of nature of science, which can be explored by students of physics on undergraduate level or in physics teacher training programs.

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  1. 1.

    In this period, criticisms to Newton’s ideas on optics were rare. Situation changed after the 1740’s when new research on optics took place and several papers, books and articles were published by supporters of different ideas. Among them the books Nova theoria lucis et colorum (1746) by Leonhard Euler (1707–1783), An attempt to demonstrate, that all phenomena in nature may be explained by two simple active principles, attraction and repulsion (1754) by Gowin Knight (1713–1772), and A dissertation upon the philosophy of light, heat and fire (1794) by James Hutton (1726–1797). Although we consider the critics of Robert Hooke (contemporary of Newton), Euler and other continentals and Thomas Young (early 19th century) as highly relevant in order to have a full picture of history of optics in eighteenth century, they are not the main scope of this paper which focuses on the first half of 18th century.

  2. 2.

    Seventeenth century natural philosophers studied this phenomenon using lenses pressed against each other or against a glass plate. Currently, this phenomenon is explained by the concept of interference between light waves reflected on the first and second surfaces of the glasses. Newton, in his turn, developed different explanations for this phenomenon which are discussed in Sect. 3. For instance, the one based on the concept of fits of easy reflection and easy transmission, published in the Book II of the Opticks.

  3. 3.

    Both works were translated and published in 1984 by Allan Shapiro (Newton 1984) as Optical papers of Isaac Newton: The Optical Lectures (16701672).

  4. 4.

    Both papers were first published many years after Newton’s death (1727) in Thomas Birch “The History of the Royal Society of London” (London 1756/57), Vol. III.

  5. 5.

    As materiality of light, Newton understood that light is made of material substances. In the Query 29, Newton speculated about the possibility that light was constituted by small material particles: “Are not the Rays of Light very small Bodies emitted from shining Substances?” (Newton 1979, p. 370).

  6. 6.

    For example, in a letter to the French priest Ignace Pardies of the 10th June 1672, Newton states that “Accordingly I understand light to be any entity or power of an entity (whether substance or some force, action or quality possessed by it) which precedes directly from a bright body and is adapted to excite vision: and I understand rays of light to be the least, or the indefinitely small parts of it, which are mutually independent, as are all rays which luminous bodies emit along straight lines either synchronously or in succession.”

  7. 7.

    At the end of the Opticks Newton made his defense to the inductivism very clear: “As in Mathematicks, so in Natural Philosophy, the investigation of difficult things by the method of analysis, ought ever to precede the method of composition. This analysis consists in making experiments and observations, and in drawing general conclusions from them by inductions […]” (Newton 1979, p. 404).

  8. 8.

    In Opticks Newton derived the sine law of refraction assuming “that Bodies refract Light by acting upon its Rays in Lines perpendicular to their Surfaces” in Book I, Part I, Prop. VI, Theorem V. While in Book II, Part III, Prop. X, he derived the refraction law assuming that “the Forces of the Bodies to reflect and refract Light, are very nearly proportional to the densities of the same Bodies”.

  9. 9.

    Since its first edition until the last edition of 1752, Algarotti’s Newton per le dame underwent through several modifications in its content and title (Mazzoti 2004, p. 123). One of the reasons for these changes was its condemnation to the Index Librorum Prohibitorum by the Catholic Church in 1739. The concrete causes for this still remain uncertain, but this surely impacted the content of the next editions, which were free of Church punishment (Mazzoti 2004, pp. 137–138).

  10. 10.

    Besides George Cheyne, Wilhelm Jacob ‘sGravesande and Robert Smith, other natural philosophers also devoted themselves to unifying optics and mechanics using similar approaches. Among them, John Rowning (1701–1771) who published A compendious system of optics between 1734 and 1738 and Richard Helsham (1682–1738) who published A course of lectures in natural philosophy in 1739.


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The authors would like to acknowledge the thorough and thoughtful comments of the anonymous referees who provided helpful suggestions for improving this paper. Our work was supported by Sao Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP).

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Correspondence to Cibelle Celestino Silva.

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Silva, C.C., Moura, B.A. Science and Society: The Case of Acceptance of Newtonian Optics in the Eighteenth Century. Sci & Educ 21, 1317–1335 (2012).

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  • Eighteenth Century
  • Optical Phenomenon
  • Natural Philosopher
  • Early Eighteenth Century
  • Corpuscular Theory