1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Huygens, Christiaan
HUYGENS, CHRISTIAAN (1629–1695), Dutch mathematician, mechanician, astronomer and physicist, was born at the Hague on the 14th of April 1629. He was the second son of Sir Constantijn Huygens. From his father he received the rudiments of his education, which was continued at Leiden under A. Vinnius and F. van Schooten, and completed in the juridical school of Breda. His mathematical bent, however, soon diverted him from legal studies, and the perusal of some of his earliest theorems enabled Descartes to predict his future greatness. In 1649 he accompanied the mission of Henry, count of Nassau, to Denmark, and in 1651 entered the lists of science as an assailant of the unsound system of quadratures adopted by Gregory of St Vincent. This first essay (Exetasis quadraturae circuli, Leiden, 1651) was quickly succeeded by his Theoremata de quadratura hyperboles, ellipsis, et circuli; while, in a treatise entitled De circuli magnitudine inventa, he made, three years later, the closest approximation so far obtained to the ratio of the circumference to the diameter of a circle.
Another class of subjects was now to engage his attention. The improvement of the telescope was justly regarded as a sine qua non for the advancement of astronomical knowledge. But the difficulties interposed by spherical and chromatic aberration had arrested progress in that direction until, in 1655, Huygens, working with his brother Constantijn, hit upon a new method of grinding and polishing lenses. The immediate results of the clearer definition obtained were the detection of a satellite to Saturn (the sixth in order of distance from its primary), and the resolution into their true form of the abnormal appendages to that planet. Each discovery in turn was, according to the prevailing custom, announced to the learned world under the veil of an anagram—removed, in the case of the first, by the publication, early in 1656, of the little tract De Saturni luna observatio nova; but retained, as regards the second, until 1659, when in the Systema Saturnium the varying appearances of the so-called “triple planet” were clearly explained as the phases of a ring inclined at an angle of 28° to the ecliptic. Huygens was also in 1656 the first effective observer of the Orion nebula; he delineated the bright region still known by his name, and detected the multiple character of its nuclear star. His application of the pendulum to regulate the movement of clocks sprang from his experience of the need for an exact measure of time in observing the heavens. The invention dates from 1656; on the 16th of June 1657 Huygens presented his first “pendulum-clock” to the states-general; and the Horologium, containing a description of the requisite mechanism, was published in 1658.
His reputation now became cosmopolitan. As early as 1655 the university of Angers had distinguished him with an honorary degree of doctor of laws. In 1663, on the occasion of his second visit to England, he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, and imparted to that body in January 1669 a clear and concise statement of the laws governing the collision of elastic bodies. Although these conclusions were arrived at independently, and, as it would seem, several years previous to their publication, they were in great measure anticipated by the communications on the same subject of John Wallis and Christopher Wren, made respectively in November and December 1668.
Huygens had before this time fixed his abode in France. In 1665 Colbert made to him on behalf of Louis XIV. an offer too tempting to be refused, and between the following year and 1681 his residence in the philosophic seclusion of the Bibliothèque du Roi was only interrupted by two short visits to his native country. His magnum opus dates from this period. The Horologium oscillatorium, published with a dedication to his royal patron in 1673, contained original discoveries sufficient to have furnished materials for half a dozen striking disquisitions. His solution of the celebrated problem of the “centre of oscillation” formed in itself an important event in the history of mechanics. Assuming as an axiom that the centre of gravity of any number of interdependent bodies cannot rise higher than the point from which it fell, he arrived, by anticipating in the particular case the general principle of the conservation of vis viva, at correct although not strictly demonstrated conclusions. His treatment of the subject was the first successful attempt to deal with the dynamics of a system. The determination of the true relation between the length of a pendulum and the time of its oscillation; the invention of the theory of evolutes; the discovery, hence ensuing, that the cycloid is its own evolute, and is strictly isochronous; the ingenious although practically inoperative idea of correcting the “circular error” of the pendulum by applying cycloidal cheeks to clocks—were all contained in this remarkable treatise. The theorems on the composition of forces in circular motion with which it concluded formed the true prelude to Newton’s Principia, and would alone suffice to establish the claim of Huygens to the highest rank among mechanical inventors.
In 1681 he finally severed his French connexions, and returned to Holland. The harsher measures which about that time began to be adopted towards his co-religionists in France are usually assigned as the motive of this step. He now devoted himself during six years to the production of lenses of enormous focal distance, which, mounted on high poles, and connected with the eye-piece by means of a cord, formed what were called “aerial telescopes.” Three of his object-glasses, of respectively 123, 180 and 210 ft. focal length, are in the possession of the Royal Society. He also succeeded in constructing an almost perfectly achromatic eye-piece, still known by his name. But his researches in physical optics constitute his chief title-deed to immortality. Although Robert Hooke in 1668 and Ignace Pardies in 1672 had adopted a vibratory hypothesis of light, the conception was a mere floating possibility until Huygens provided it with a sure foundation. His powerful scientific imagination enabled him to realize that all the points of a wave-front originate partial waves, the aggregate effect of which is to reconstitute the primary disturbance at the subsequent stages of its advance, thus accomplishing its propagation; so that each primary undulation is the envelope of an indefinite number of secondary undulations. This resolution of the original wave is the well-known “Principle of Huygens,” and by its means he was enabled to prove the fundamental laws of optics, and to assign the correct construction for the direction of the extraordinary ray in uniaxial crystals. These investigations, together with his discovery of the “wonderful phenomenon” of polarization, are recorded in his Traité de la lumière, published at Leiden in 1690, but composed in 1678. In the appended treatise Sur la Cause de la pesanteur, he rejected gravitation as a universal quality of matter, although admitting the Newtonian theory of the planetary revolutions. From his views on centrifugal force he deduced the oblate figure of the earth, estimating its compression, however, at little more than one-half its actual amount.
Huygens never married. He died at the Hague on the 8th of June 1695, bequeathing his manuscripts to the university of Leiden, and his considerable property to the sons of his younger brother. In character he was as estimable as he was brilliant in intellect. Although, like most men of strong originative power, he assimilated with difficulty the ideas of others, his tardiness sprang rather from inability to depart from the track of his own methods than from reluctance to acknowledge the merits of his competitors.