Encyclopedia of Color Science and Technology

2016 Edition
| Editors: Ming Ronnier Luo

Helmholtz, Hermann Ludwig von

Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4419-8071-7_292

Image by Ludwig Knaus, 1881


Helmholtz was born on August 31, 1821 in Potsdam near Berlin, Germany, into a well-educated family. His father, an educator, taught him the classical languages and introduced him to philosophy. Helmholtz studied medicine in Berlin under physiologist Johannes Müller, at the same time attending lectures in physics and mathematics. Müller was an adherent of the then broadly accepted philosophical nativism. Helmholtz spent much of his life finding objective arguments against nativism and in favor of empiricism. After spending several years in military service in Potsdam and a stint as associate professor of physiology at the Prussian University, he became a full professor of anatomy and physiology in Bonn. Three years later, he moved to the University of Heidelberg and in 1871 became professor of physics at the University of Berlin, where he remained until his retirement. Helmholtz had a broad range of interests, from astronomy to physics, physiology, and the relationship between the physical world and human sensory perception. In 1847 he wrote an important article on the conservation of physical force [1]. In 1850 Helmholtz invented the ophthalmoscope for inspecting the interior of eyes for medical purposes and revolutionized the practice of ophthalmology [2]. Among Helmholtz’s many students were H. R. Hertz, M. Planck, A. A. Michelson, W. Wundt, and W. Kohlrausch (the codiscoverer of the Helmholtz-Kohlrausch effect).

Major Accomplishments/Contributions

In sensory perception, he specifically covered hearing and, most extensively, vision. His most important publication is Handbuch der physiologischen Optik (Treatise on Physiological Optics), a 900+-page work whose first edition was published in 1867 when he was in Heidelberg [3]. Its main sections are (1) anatomical description of the eye; (2) physiological optics; (3) dioptrics of the eye; (4) sensations of vision, including simple colors and compound colors; (5) intensity and duration of the sensation of light; (6) contrast (including colored shadows); and (7) duplicity theory. A second edition authored by Helmholtz was published posthumously in 1896, supervised by Helmholtz’ assistant Arthur König who also added over 7800 literature references [4]. A third edition was published in 1909, consisting of the second edition, with contributions by A. Gullstrand, J. von Kries, and W. Nagel. It was translated into English by J. P. C Southhall and published with an additional contribution by the Optical Society of America [5].

Helmholtz built his trichromatic theory of color vision on Newton’s findings, Young’s theory of three sensor types in the eye, Maxwell’s experimental findings of color mixture, and his own extensive experimental data concerning various aspects of color vision. He developed a spectral light mixture apparatus (see portrait) with which, after initial unsatisfactory results causing the mathematician H. Grassmann to challenge his data, he established the first detailed quantitative data for the relationship between color stimuli and percepts. Mathematical models of his findings and concepts were a standard procedure in his work. Under his guidance, his assistants König and Dieterici developed in 1885 a first quantitative version of a trichromatic chromaticity diagram (Fig. 1) [4].
Helmholtz, Hermann Ludwig von, Fig. 1

Chromaticity diagram based on König and Dieterici’s fundamental color sensitivity functions determined in Helmholtz’s laboratory. Loci of spectral color stimuli are on the curved solid line. Letters indicate loci of Fraunhofer lines in the spectrum

While Helmholtz developed an experimentally supported general psychophysical theory of vision, he was also concerned about and experimented with many additional phenomena of the human visual system. He is the first to mention color constancy, saying that “we always start out forming a judgment about the colors of bodies, eliminating the difference of illumination by which the body is revealed to us” [6]. The color vision theory of Helmholtz, based on Young’s conjecture of three sensor types, is known as the Young-Helmholtz theory of trichromatic color vision.

His rival Ewald Hering developed a theory of color vision essentially based on psychology to which he gave a presumed physiological basis. Both views attracted followers [7]. Today, the controversy has been narrowed but still remains. Interestingly, their expressed epistemological views are not as might be expected: Helmholtz viewed lights and colors as symbols. In 1852 he said: “Light and color percepts are only symbols for the relations of reality; with the latter they have as little and as much similarity or relationship as the name of a person or its written form with the person itself” [8]. Hering, on the other hand, believed that, in perception, our access to real objects is a direct one.


  1. 1.
    von Helmholtz, H.: Über die Erhaltung der Kraft. Reimer, Berlin (1847)MATHGoogle Scholar
  2. 2.
    von Helmholtz, H.: Beschreibung eines Augenspiegels zur Untersuchung der Netzhaut im lebenden Auge. Förstner, Berlin (1851)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 3.
    von Helmholtz, H.: Handbuch der physiologischen Optik. Voss, Leipzig (1867)MATHGoogle Scholar
  4. 4.
    Von Helmholtz, H.: Handbuch der physiologischen Optik, 2nd edn., edited and with contributions of A. P. König. Voss, Hamburg (1896)Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    von Helmholtz, H.: Handbuch der physiologischen Optik, 3 edn., with contributions by A. Gullstrand, J. von Kries, W. Nagel. Voss, Hamburg (1909). English translation with an additional contribution by C. Ladd-Franklin published by the Optical Society of America as Helmholtz’s treatise on physiological optics in 1924.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    von Helmholtz, H.: Handbuch der physiologischen Optik, 3 edn., with contributions by A. Gullstrand, J. von Kries, W. Nagel. Voss, Hamburg (1909). English translation with an additional contribution by C. Ladd-Franklin published by the Optical Society of America as Helmholtz’s treatise on physiological optics in 1924. English translation, part 2, p. 286/7Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Turner, R.S.: In the Eye’s Mind: Vision and the Helmholtz-Hering Controversy. Princeton University Press, Princeton (1994)Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    von Helmholtz, H.: Über die Natur der menschlichen Sinnesempfindungen. In: Wissenschaftliche Abhandlungen, vol. 2. Barth, Leipzig (1883)Google Scholar

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© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.CharlotteUSA