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Title: Problems in the theory and perception of colour, 1800-1860
Author: Sherman, Paul D.
Awarding Body: University of London
Current Institution: Imperial College London
Date of Award: 1972
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Colour and colour perception have long been subjects for scientific enquiry. It was only in the 19th century, however, that some understanding of colour vision and its relationship to colour mixing emerged. Much of this knowledge evolved through the work of Young, Brewster, Helmholtz and Maxwell. It is not too much to say that 19th century investigations of colour perception were initiated by Young's celebrated trichromatic theory of vision. While the concept of primary colours is as old as art and science itself, and the concept of three primaries can be traced to the 17th century, it was Young who first saw that this idea might be made the basis of a theory of colour vision. Young's idea of red, green and violet as primary colours was contrary to the received opinion of red, yellow and blue. There was no argument about choosing between violet or blue but there was considerable confusion over whether yellow or green should be chosen as primary. Since .Young's choice had been made on the basis of doubtful spectral observations, other scientists were led to repeat his experiments. This, in part, led Brewster to a series of experiments on the spectrum from which he evolved in 183/ an ingenious but erroneous spectral theory. All spectral colours were to be compounded from three primary colours, red, yellow and blue which occupied equal lengths in the spectrum. Brewster's theory raised considerable controversy among physicists which was not settled until 1852 when Helmholtz showed that Brewster had been the victim of several subjective illusions concerning colour. He showed also that the confusion over colour mixing, and hence over Brewster's theory, was due to two different processes being considered equivalent, additive and subtractive colour mixing. The distinction between these processes marked a turning point in understanding colour mixtures and colour vision. Helmholtz's work served as the basis of a mathematical theory of colour by Grassmann and that theory together with certain ideas from photometry served as the basis of Maxwell's experiments in colour vision. Maxwell showed that colour could be measured, and hence transformed a qualitative science into a quantitative one. He confirmed Young's trichromatic hypothesis as well as his choice of primaries and showed that colourblindness, a much discussed parallel study, could be understood in terms of Young's hypothesis. Equally interesting is the fact that Maxwell's experiments reveal him as a first rate experimental physicist, a fact which is apparently little appreciated; for this reason his experiments are described in detail.
Supervisor: Not available Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available