Thomas Young's wave experiments

Thomas Young's experiments with light were extremely important for those people wishing to show that light behaved like a series of waves. His work was initially ignored, as it went against Isaac Newton's great work that described light as particles. Later, Young's experiments gained support, and some are still performed today.

Wave machine
Image 1 Engraving of a portrait of Thomas Young; 19th century. Image © the Whipple Museum (Wh.3560).

Young's experiments with light

Thomas Young started his career as a medical man, but his interests were broad and he soon began studying the properties of light. From 1801 to 1803 Young served as Professor of Natural Philosophy at the Royal Institution in London. During this time, he conducted a series of experiments demonstrating that light appeared to behave like waves, as it could be made to break up into coloured fringes (this is known as diffraction).

This wave-like behaviour suggested that "light is not a substance but a process going on in a substance"(1) - as the physicist James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) later said. This was not a new idea: it had been suggested by Christiaan Huygens XR  and others in the 17th century. However, Young's experiments offered new evidence in favour of this wave theory of light.

Unfortunately for Young, XR  this theory conflicted with the dominant particle theory of light, which described light as a stream of particles that are emitted from a light source. Young did not find much support for his research and his work was criticised as being contrary to the teachings of Newton's XR  famous book Opticks, which supported the particle theory. One notable critic, Henry Brougham (1778-1868), wrote that Young's wave theory was "destitute of every species of merit ... the unmanly and unfruitful pleasure of a boyish and prurient imagination".(2)

As a result, Young's work was generally ignored for more than a decade. Interest in the wave theory was revived when Augustin Fresnel XR  (1788-1827) developed an explanation of diffraction around 1816, which explained the phenomenon in terms of the wave theory. Young's experiments then became seen as potentially significant.

Today, two centuries later, Young's 'double slit' experiment is frequently performed as a classroom physics demonstration, with the results commonly accepted as proof that light has wave-like properties. Of course, this is not the end of the story, as we now accept that light has properties of both waves and particles, as explained by quantum mechanics.

» More on the wave theory of light


  1. From Maxwell's entry on 'Ether' in the ninth edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica (1875-1889). (Find in text ^)
  2. H. Brougham, anonymously published in The Edinburgh Review, January (1803), pp. 450-456, p. 453. (Find in text ^)

Chris Haley

Chris Haley, 'Thomas Young's wave experiments', Explore Whipple Collections, Whipple Museum of the History of Science, University of Cambridge, 2008 [, accessed 25 November 2017]

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