What Did Isaac Newton Find Out About Light?

In 1672, Isaac Newton launched the modern concepts of light and color by publishing his series of experiments. He showed that light consists of not one color but several.

Prior to Newton’s publication, people thought color was a mixture of light and darkness, and that prisms colored light. Robert Hooke believed this color theory and had a scale that ranged from brilliant

red–which is pure white light with the least amount of darkness added–to dull blue, the last step before black, which is the complete elimination of light by darkness.

Through his experiments, Newton discovered this theory was false. In one experiment, he set up a prism by a window and projected a 22-foot spectrum of red, orange, yellow, green, blue and violet onto a far wall. To show that prisms do not color light, he refracted the lights back into a single white light.

Artists were excited by Newton’s clear demonstration that all colors come from light alone. Most useful to theme is his color wheel, which enhances the effects of primary colors by placing them opposite their complementary colors.

No one questioned Newton’s ideas about light and color until 1810, when Johann Wolfgang von Goethe published a 1,400-page treatise on color. Although Goethe misinterpreted some of Newton’s experiments and created a distorted color wheel, he correctly concluded that there is more to human vision than light bouncing off objects and entering people’s eyes. Perception affects human vision. What people see depends upon the object, the lighting and perception.