Encyclopedia of Color Science and Technology

2016 Edition
| Editors: Ming Ronnier Luo

Munsell, Albert Henry

Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4419-8071-7_307


Munsell was born on January 6, 1858, in Boston, MA, where his father was in the piano business. After high school he attended the Massachusetts Normal Art School in Boston. In 1879 he studied Ogden Nicholas Rood’s influential book Modern Chromatics. In 1881 he was named an instructor and later a lecturer at this school, positions he held for 25 years. He was awarded a scholarship that made it possible for him to study from 1885 to 1888 at the Académie Julian and the École nationale superieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris and 1 year in Rome. After he returned he was an active painter of portraits and seascapes. In 1889 he received a patent for an adjustable artist’s easel. In 1894 he married Julia Orr, the daughter of a New York financier, with whom he had a son, Albert Ector Orr Munsell, and three daughters. Munsell died on July 28, 1918, in Brookline, MA [1].
Munsell, Albert Henry, Fig. 1

Munsell’s schematic depiction of the color tree

Photograph from A Color Notation [5]

Major Accomplishments/Contributions

As a lecturer at the art school, Munsell became concerned with how to teach students about colors in a meaningful manner. In 1899 he developed a model of a balanced color sphere that, when spun rapidly, resulted in a gray appearance, thus showing a kind of color balance. He received a patent for it in 1900 [2]. Munsell met O. N. Rood, then professor of physics in New York, in 1899 showing him his color sphere, with Rood commenting positively on it. Simultaneously, Munsell concerned himself with the design of the interior of the color sphere. In April 1900 he sketched a hue circle based on the decimal system, with five primary, five secondary, and ten intermediate hues. It continues to be the basis of the modern system. Munsell, from his studies in painting, had a clear idea of lightness or value, as it was typically called in painters’ circles. In 1901 he obtained a patent for a photometer he called a luminometer. It was manufactured in small numbers in the following years [3]. The basic question of using a logarithmic or a power root scale to relate the physical data of the luminometer to perceived lightness in his system was a question not fully resolved until after Munsell’s death. In 1902 Munsell hand-plotted color intensity and lightness data for different pigments, earlier established by W. Abney, and realized that a sphere was an incomplete representation of perceived colors. As a result he began to name his color solid a “color tree.” Having established a hue circle and a subjective lightness scale, he was aware that for completeness he needed to define a chromatic intensity scale. It is not established how he arrived at the term “chroma” for that purpose. In March 1902 he sketched a color solid based on the three attributes as shown in more detail in Fig. 1 (Ref. 4, 1907). Samples were to be spaced according to perceptual equal differences by parameter. Munsell began to establish such samples to fill limited hue pages. Munsell described the system in A Color Notation, first published in 1905 [5]. A first edition of the Atlas of the Munsell Color System was published in 1907 containing eight charts of painted samples of ten different hues [6]. In the 1915 edition of the atlas, the number of samples was doubled. Munsell also introduced artist’s tools based on his system: Munsell crayons and Munsell water colors. As a painter Munsell was interested in color harmony, and he established nine principles based on his color solid [7].

Throughout the development of the system, he consulted with a broad group of scientists and artists and gave many presentations in the USA and in Europe. In 1917 he formed the Munsell Color Company to operate the business of producing the atlas. After his passing it was taken over by his son A. E. O. Munsell and other stockholders. At about the same time, the National Bureau of Standards began to show interest in the system and supported sample measurement and expansion of the system. An enlarged edition with 20 hues was published in 1929 [8]. In the 1940s extensive experiments were made under the auspices of the Optical Society of America resulting in the Munsell Renotations (for Munsell system colorimetric renotation data, see, e.g., Ref. [9]), colorimetric definitions of a revised version of samples of the atlas that continue to be the basis of the modern system. Munsell’s is perhaps the most important color atlas system yet developed.


  1. 1.
    Munsell, A. H.: The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography 36, p. 316 (1950)Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Munsell, A. H.: Color sphere and mount. US Patent No. 640,792 of 9 Jan 1900Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Munsell, A.: Notebooks 1900–1918. Accessible at www.cis.rit.edu/research/mcsl2/online/munselldiaries.php. Accessed 15 Jan 2014
  4. 4.
    Munsell, A.H.: Color and an Eye to Discern It. Self-Published, Boston (1907)Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Munsell, A.H.: A Color Notation. Ellis, Boston (1905)Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Munsell, A.H.: Atlas of the Munsell Color System. Ellis, Boston (1907)Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Munsell, A.H., Cleland, T.M.: A Grammar of Color. Strathmore Paper, Mittineage (1921)Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Berns, R.S., Billmeyer, F.W.: Development of the 1929 Munsell book of color. Color Res. Appl. 10, 245–250 (1985)Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Wyszecki, G., Stiles, W.S.: Color Science, 2d edn. Wiley, Hoboken (1982)Google Scholar

Further Reading

  1. Kuehni, R.G.: The early development of the Munsell system. Color Res. Appl. 27, 20–27 (2002)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Nickerson, D.: History of the Munsell color system and its scientific application. J. Opt. Soc. Am. 30, 575–585 (1940)ADSCrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.CharlotteUSA