Nineteenth Century Wave Theories

The history of physics from ancient times to the modern day, focusing on light and matter. British natural philosopher Thomas Young sent rays of light through two slits in the 1800s, and showed that they behaved like waves. This was explained using the superposition principle. Eventually, it was shown that light is made of electromagnetic waves, and that light exists beyond the visible spectrum.

Last updated on 5th August 2017 by Dr Helen Klus

1. Young's double-slit experiments

British natural philosopher Thomas Young provided strong evidence for Dutch natural philosopher Christiaan Huygens' wave theory of light in 1803, when he published the results of his double-slit experiments[1].

Young repeated earlier experiments with diffraction but passed the light through more than one slit.

  • If light is composed of particles, then they should all pass through separate holes and create two bright patterns on the other side.

  • If light is composed of waves, however, then it should produce a predictable interference pattern, just like water waves do.

Diagram of the double-slit experiment with particles. Particles move through one of the two slits one at a time, forming two groups.

The double-slit experiment with particles. Image credit: inductiveload/Public domain.

Diagram of the double-slit experiment with waves. Waves move through both slits at once, causing an interference pattern, and producing more than two peaks.

The double-slit experiment with waves. Image credit: inductiveload/Public domain.

Young showed that light behaves like a wave and creates an interference pattern, which is a consequence of the superposition principle.

1.1 The superposition principle

The superposition principle shows that when two waves meet, a new wave is created that has an amplitude equal to the sum of the two waves it is composed of. This means that if two waves are emitted in the same phase, then they create a wave that is twice their former amplitude, and waves that are out of phase by 180° will become flat.

Diagram showing that two waves of the same phase combine to produce waves of twice the amplitude. Waves that are completely out of phase, will cancel out, producing a flat line.

Image credit: Haade/Wjh31/Quibik/CC-SA.

Sketch of Young's results, showing that light behaved as if it was a wave.

Young's sketch of two-slit diffraction of light, 1803. Image credit: Thomas Young/Public domain.

Once Young knew that light is made of waves, he was able to estimate the wavelengths of individual colours using data from English natural philosopher Isaac Newton.

2. Polarisation

In 1816, French engineer Augustin-Jean Fresnel proposed that light waves have a transverse as well as longitudinal component, and Young made the same discovery independently, the following year[2].

Young and Fresnel went on to explain Newton's results in terms of their wave theory and, by 1821, they were able to show that light waves are entirely transverse. This allowed them to explain the behaviour Huygens had documented in calcite crystals[3].

Calcite crystals act as polarisers, a term coined by French mathematician Étienne-Louis Malus in about 1811, and this means that they only allow the ray to propagate in one plane, either horizontally or vertically[4].

Diagram of an electromagnetic wave. This is composed of a magnetic wave and an electric wave, which are perpendicular to each other.

An electromagnetic wave. Image credit: modified by Helen Klus, original image by LennyWikidata/CC-SA.

Diagram showing that unpolarised light, which moves in all directions, can be polarised. Only light that moves vertically can move though a vertical polariser.

Vertical polarisation. Image credit: modified by Helen Klus, original image by Kaidor/老陳/CC-A.

The horizontal component of a wave cannot travel through a vertically aligned polariser, and the vertical component cannot travel through a horizontally aligned polariser. When two crystals are placed next to each other, the light will only be able to travel through both if they are aligned the same way.

3. Electromagnetic radiation

People were able to study electricity in the laboratory for the first time in the early 1800s. Italian natural philosopher Alessandro Volta created the first electric cell in 1800. He achieved this by placing paper that had been soaked in salt-water between pieces of zinc and copper. This invoked a voltage, a difference in electrical energy between two points. By connecting many cells together, Volta was able to create a battery, known as a voltaic pile[5].

Diagram of a voltaic pile made from layers of zinc and copper.

A voltaic pile. Image credit: modified by Helen Klus, original image by Luigi Chiesa/Borbrav/CC-SA.

Photograph of a voltaic pile attached to a voltmeter.

A voltaic pile.
Image credit: MdeVicente/Public domain

In 1831, British natural philosopher Michael Faraday discovered that if a magnet is moved across a copper wire, then this also creates a current. This is known as Faraday's law of induction and it was soon utilised in the invention of the electric motor[6].

Faraday discovered the Faraday effect in 1845. This shows that a magnetic field can cause a ray of polarised light to rotate, a horizontal ray will become vertical, and a vertical ray will become horizontal. This means that electricity, magnetism, and light must all be connected[7].

In 1864, British natural philosopher James Clerk Maxwell combined Faraday's law of induction with three other equations[8]: German mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss' two laws concerning electric and magnetic fields[9], and French natural philosopher Andre-Marie Ampere's law relating magnetic fields to electric current[10].

Maxwell used these equations to develop an electromagnetic wave equation. The velocity of this wave was calculated to be the same as the speed of light, and so Maxwell concluded that light is a form of electromagnetic radiation.

Maxwell proposed that light is a transverse wave composed of oscillating electric and magnetic fields. Maxwell's equations predicted that light could have an infinite number of wavelengths, suggesting that light must exist at energies well beyond the visible spectrum.

3.1 The electromagnetic spectrum

British astronomer William Herschel discovered infrared light in 1800. Herschel measured the temperature of different colours using prisms, and found that the temperature was highest just beyond the colour red[11].

German natural philosopher Johann Wilhelm Ritter predicted the existence of ultraviolet light in 1801, when he found that it reacts with silver chloride[12].

Painting of the first electric street lights in Berlin.

First electric street lights in Berlin, 1884 by Carl Saltzmann. Image credit: Carl Saltzmann/Public domain.

The electromagnetic spectrum was completed by the end of the 19th century, with German physicist Heinrich Hertz demonstrating the existence of radio waves and microwaves by 1888[13], German physicist Wilhelm Röntgen discovering X-rays in 1895[14], and French chemist Paul Villard discovering gamma rays in 1900[15].

Diagram showing the wavelength and frequency of the electromagnetic spectrum from radio waves to gamma rays.

The electromagnetic spectrum. Image credit: Inductiveload/NASA/CC-SA.

By 1900, the light bulb, tram, and telephone had been invented, and the development of electrical transmission lines soon allowed the public to access electricity in their own homes[16].

4. The aether

Maxwell's electromagnetic theory, like all previous theories of light, relied on the idea that space is filled with a substance known as the aether. The aether was thought to be a medium, like air or water, that allows light waves to travel through space. If it exists, then the light of the Sun should be dragged forwards in its direction of travel, like sound in the wind.

This means that the speed of light should appear to be faster when it is travelling in the same direction as the aether, and slower when it is moving against it.

Diagram showing how the motion of the Earth would be affected by the aether. The Earth would move slower when travelling against the aether, and faster when moving with it, in the same way that a person can ride a bike faster when moving with, rather than against, the wind.

The aether. Image credit: Cronholm144/CC-SA.

In 1887, American physicists Albert Michelson and Edward Morley devised an experiment that was precise enough to measure the difference in the speed of light as the Earth moves around the Sun[17].

To almost everyone's surprise, they found that the speed of light moves at the same rate in all directions. This meant that there was no aether, and so no explanation for how light can travel through space.

This was explained in the 20th Century, with the discovery of quantum mechanics.

5. References

  1. Young, T., 1803, 'Experiments and Calculations Relative to Physical Optics', Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, 94, pp.1-16.

  2. James, F. A., 1984, 'The physical interpretation of the wave theory of light', The British Journal for the History of Science, 17, pp.47-60.

  3. Fresnel, A., 1821, 'Note on the calculation of shades that polarization develops in the crystalline blades', Annals of Chemistry and Physics, 17, pp.101-112.

  4. Jameson, D. M., 2014, 'Introduction to Fluorescence', Taylor & Francis.

  5. Volta, A., 1800, 'On the Electricity Excited by the Mere Contact of Conducting Substances of Different Kinds', Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, 1, pp.27-29.

  6. Faraday, M., 1831, 'On Volta-electric induction, and the evolution of electricity from magnetism', Lancet, 2, pp.246-248.

  7. Faraday, M., 1846, 'Experimental Researches in Electricity', Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, 136, pp.1-20.

  8. Maxwell, J. C., 1865, 'A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field', Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, 13, pp.531-536.

  9. Gauss , C. F., 1867, 'Works', Vol 5, 627th.

  10. Ampere, A. M., 1823, 'Memoir on the mathematical theory of electrodynamic phenomena, experimentally deduced', Mémoires de l'Académie Royale des Sciences, 6, pp.175-388.

  11. Herschel, W., 1800, 'Experiments on the Solar, and on the Terrestrial Rays that Occasion Heat...', Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, 90, pp.437-538.

  12. Ritter, J. W., 1801, 'Sunrays outside the color spectrum , on the side of violets', Widerhohlung der Rouppachen Versuche. Wien, Mathemat-Naturew Klasse, 79, pp.365-380.

  13. Hertz, H., 1888, 'On electromagnetic waves in air and their reflection', Electrical waves, pp.124-136.

  14. Röntgen, W. C., 1896, 'On a new kind of rays', Science, 3, pp.227-231.

  15. Villard, M. M., 1900, 'The radiation from radium', CR Acad. Sci. Paris, 130, pp.1178.

  16. Simon, L., 2005, 'Dark Light: Electricity and Anxiety from the Telegraph to the X-Ray', Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

  17. Michelson, A. A. and Morley, E. W., 1887, 'On the Relative Motion of the Earth and of the Luminiferous Ether', Sidereal Messenger, 6, pp.306-310.

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The Star Garden is a science news and science education website run by Dr Helen Klus.

How we came to know the cosmos covers the history of physics focusing on space and time, light and matter, and the mind. It explains the simple discoveries we made in prehistoric times, and how we built on them, little by little, until the conclusions of modern theories seem inevitable. This is shown in a timeline of the universe.

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Light & Matter

Pre 20th Century theories

1. Atoms and Waves

2. Reflection, Refraction, and Diffraction

3. Newton's theory of Light

4. Measuring the Speed of Light

5. 19th Century Wave Theories

6. 19th Century Particle Theories

7. Spectral Lines and Spectroscopy

Quantum Mechanics

1. Origin of Quantum Mechanics

2. Development of Atomic theory

3. Quantum Mechanical model

4. Sommerfeld's model

5. History of Quantum Spin

6. Superconductivity

7. History of Nuclear Physics

8. De Broglie's Matter Waves

9. Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle

10. Schrödinger's Wave Equation

11. Quantum Entanglement

12. Schrödinger's Cat

Quantum field theories

1. Field Concept in Physics

2. Electromagnetic Force

3. Strong Nuclear Force

4. Weak Nuclear Force

5. Quantum Gravity