skip to content

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.

Wave theorists

Following the work of wave theorists such as Thomas Young, Augustin Fresnel 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.

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

Charles Wheatstone's wave machine
Charles Wheatstone's wave machine for demonstrating 'longitudinal' waves, such as sound waves; made circa 1850 (Wh.4517).

Another problem for wave theorists was communicating the physical structure of waves that they were proposing. Wave-motion models such as the one pictured here 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.

Chris Haley

Chris Haley, 'Wave theory', Explore Whipple Collections, Whipple Museum of the History of Science, University of Cambridge, 2008.

Next Article: Thomas Young

Opening Times

We are regularly open five days a week, 12.30 - 16:30.

And now open the third Saturday of every month!

Monday 12.30 - 16:30

Tuesday 12.30 - 16:30

Wednesday 12.30 - 16:30

Thursday 12.30 - 16:30

Friday 12.30 - 16:30

Selected Saturdays 10.00 - 16.00

We hope to see you soon!