Wave theory

In the 19th century, there was fierce debate between supporters of rival theories on the nature of light. Those supporting the wave theory often used models to explain their ideas, as the mathematics is very complex.

Wheatstone's wave machine
Image 1 Charles Wheatstone's wave machine for demonstrating 'longitudinal' waves, such as sound waves; made circa 1850. Image © the Whipple Museum (Wh.2007).

Wave theorists

Following the work of wave theorists such as Thomas Young, XR  Augustin Fresnel XR  and François Arago in the 1810s and 1820s, the wave theory came to be seen as a potential explanation for understanding the nature of light.

» More on Thomas Young

The wave theory was challenged by those who supported the particle theory. They attacked the wave theory for several reasons, leading to heated debate over the first half of the 19th century.

One problem was that analysing the waves mathematically was extremely complex. The tools that modern physicists use were in the process of being invented.

Problems of communication

Another problem for wave theorists was communicating the physical structure of waves that they were proposing. Wave-motion models (Image 1) became a popular means of investigating, visualising and explaining waves.

By the second half of the 19th century the wave theory was generally accepted within Britain. By this time, however, new problems had arisen. Light displays a property known as polarisation, which has been known since 1669. Physicists found it difficult to explain this phenomenon according to the wave theory.

Despite physicists' best efforts, it proved too complex to incorporate all of the properties of waves within a mechanical model. Towards the end of the 19th century, physicists abandoned mechanical models in favour of more abstract mathematical equations.

» EXPLORE: watch a wave machine in motion

Chris Haley

Chris Haley, 'Wave theory', Explore Whipple Collections, Whipple Museum of the History of Science, University of Cambridge, 2008 [http://www.hps.cam.ac.uk/whipple/explore/models/wavemachines/wavetheory/]

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