A Notion or a Measure: The Quantification of Light to 1939

Dissertation, University of Leeds (1994)
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This study, presenting a history of the measurement of light intensity from its first hesitant emergence to its gradual definition as a scientific subject, explores two major themes. The first concerns the adoption by the evolving physics and engineering communities of quantitative measures of light intensity around the turn of the twentieth century. The mathematisation of light measurement was a contentious process that hinged on finding an acceptable relationship between the mutable response of the human eye and the more easily stabilised, but less encompassing, techniques of physical measurement. A second theme is the exploration of light measurement as an example of ‘peripheral science’. Among the characteristics of such a science, I identify the lack of a coherent research tradition and the persistent partitioning of the subject between disparate groups of practitioners. Light measurement straddled the conventional categories of ‘science’ and ‘technology’, and was influenced by such distinct factors as utilitarian requirements, technological innovation, human perception and bureaucratisation. Peripheral fields such as this, which may be typical of much of modern science and technology, have hitherto received little attention from historians. These themes are pursued with reference to the social and technological factors which were combined inextricably in the development of the subject. The intensity of light gained only sporadic attention until the late nineteenth century. Measured for the utilitarian needs of the gas lighting industry from the second half of the century, light intensity was appropriated by members of the nascent electric lighting industry, too, in their search for a standard of illumination. By the turn of the century the ‘illuminating engineering movement’ was becoming an organised, if eclectic, community which promoted research into and standards for the measurement of light intensity. The twentieth-century development of the subject was moulded by organisation and institutionalisation. Between 1900 and 1920, the new national and industrial laboratories in Britain, America and Germany were crucial in stabilising the subject. In the inter-war period, committees and international commissions sought to standardise light measurement and to promote research. Such government- and industry-supported delegations, rather than academic institutions, were primarily responsible for the ‘construction’ of the subject. Practitioners increasingly came to interpret the three topics of photometry (visible light measurement), colorimetry (the measurement of colour) and radiometry (the measurement of invisible radiations) as aspects of a broader study, and enthusiastically applied them to industrial and scientific problems. From the 1920s, the long-established visual methods of observation were increasingly replaced by physical means of light measurement, a process initially contingent on scientific fashion more than demonstrated superiority. New photoelectric techniques for measuring light intensity engendered new commercial instruments, a trend which accelerated in the following decade when photometric measurement was applied with limited success to a range of industrial problems. Seeds sowed in the 1920s – namely commercialisation and industrial application, the transition from visual to ‘physical’ methods, and the search for fundamental limitations in light measurement – gave the subject substantially the form it was to retain over the next half-century.

Author's Profile

Sean F. Johnston
University of Glasgow


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