CHRISTIAAN HUYGENS (1629- 95)

1690 – Holland

HUYGENS

‘Every point on a wavefront can act as a new source of waves’

A line perpendicular to the wave fronts is called a ray and this ray shows the direction of the wave.

The Huygens construction, published in ‘Traite de la Lumiere‘ (’Treatise on Light’, 1690) gives an explanation for the way light is reflected and refracted.

Huygens said that light consists of a disturbance spreading from its source as spherical pressure waves having wave fronts perpendicular to the direction of their motion and correctly anticipated that in a denser medium light would travel more slowly. This hypothesis was largely ignored at the time as it conflicted with NEWTON‘s theory. Huygens’ view, when re-discovered and championed by THOMAS YOUNG (1773-1829) would eventually become the more commonly accepted version.

He invented a pendulum clock (1656) and also discovered Titan, the first observed moon of Saturn (1665).

Huygens discovered that a simple pendulum does not keep perfect time but completes smaller swings faster than big swings. This is because the weight or ‘bob’ of the pendulum follows a circular path. Huygens’ realisation that a pendulum mimicking a circle’s curve does not maintain a perfectly equal swing and that in order to do this it actually needs to follow a ‘cycloidal’ arc, set him on the path to designing the first successful pendulum clock.

Published ‘Horologium‘ (1658), ‘Horologium Oscillatorium‘ (1673) in which he showed that if the bob’s path were a cycloid (the curved path traced out by a point on the rim of a wheel as it rolls along) instead of a circle, it would be isynchronous (keeping equal time) no matter what the length of the swing. He made the pendulum’s swing cycloidal by suspending a rigid pendulum rod on two chords whose swing either way was limited by two plates called cycloidal checks.

GALILEO had considered the timekeeping possibilities of a swinging pendulum and Huygens successfully tied it with an escapement mechanism.
He explored the mathematics associated with pendulums – which led him, together with HOOKE, to an early prediction of the link between the elliptical orbits of the planets and the inverse square law of gravity. His work was a milestone, playing a key part in the understanding of centrifugal force. It helped to confirm Newton’s laws of motion by showing how an object will travel in a straight line unless pulled into a curved path by some other force.

Huygens was one of the founders of the French Académie des sciences in Paris.

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