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Christiaan HuygensChristiaan Huygens

[hI' guhnz] the first to use a pendulum to measure time

Christiaan Huygens was born on April 14, 1629, in The Hague, Netherlands. His father, a distinguished poet and diplomat, counted some of the most respected scholars in Europe among his friends. One of those friends was René Descartes, who convinced Christiaan that science would some day explain all natural phenomena. He studied law and mathematics at Leiden, became a member of The Royal Society in London in 1663, and worked in Paris at the invitation of King Louis XIV from 1666 to 1681.

Huygens' drawings of Saturn and its ringsHuygens made his first major contribution to science in 1655, when he discovered a new method for grinding lenses for telescopes. Using the technique, he constructed a telescope of extremely high resolving power, which enabled him to observe the heavens in more detail than had ever been possible before. It was with this telescope that he discovered that Saturn was surrounded by a system of rings with at least one moon orbiting the planet. He also became the first to observe surface markings on Mars, and discovered the huge nebula in the constellation of Orion. During the course of his astronomical research, Huygens invented a special micrometer to measure angular separations between heavenly bodies.

left: Huygens' drawings of Saturn and its rings

Huygens was looking for a way of putting to use a theory he had worked out explaining the way in which forces act on a body moving in a circle. He applied it to the motion of a pendulum, the bob of which usually describes an arc of a circle. By modifying the arm of the pendulum, he discovered that it could be made to swing in a rhythm of exactly equal time intervals. Huygens' drawing of his pendulum clockImmediately recognizing the potential of such precise regularity, Huygens designed a means of keeping the pendulum swinging while linking its movement to a clock, thus developing the world's first accurate mechanical chronometer.

right: Huygens' drawing of his pendulum clock

Huygens' last major contribution to science came shortly before a bout of illness that destroyed his health. Doubtful about Sir Isaac Newton's view that light consisted of a flux of innumerable luminous particles, Huygens worked out an alternative theory that showed how light could be thought of as a wave which pulsated longitudinally in the overall direction of its motion. Although future experiments proved that light actually pulsates in a wave perpendicular to its overall motion, Huygens' work established the basic concept of light as a wave. He died in The Hague on July 18, 1695.

Sir Isaac Newton

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This page was last updated on 04/13/2017.