From eye to machine: Shifting authority in color measurement

In Barbara Saunders & Van Jaap Brakel (eds.), Theories, Technologies, Instrumentalities of Color: Anthropological and Historiographic Perspectives. Upa. pp. 289-306 (2002)
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Given a subject so imbued with contention and conflicting theoretical stances, it is remarkable that automated instruments ever came to replace the human eye as sensitive arbiters of color specification. Yet, dramatic shifts in assumptions and practice did occur in the first half of the twentieth century. How and why was confidence transferred from careful observers to mechanized devices when the property being measured – color – had become so closely identified with human physiology and psychology? A fertile perspective on the problem is via the history of science and technology, paying particular attention to social groups and disciplinary identity to determine how those factors affected their communities’ cognitive territory. There were both common and discordant threads motivating the various technical groups that took on the problems of measuring light and color from the late nineteenth century onwards, and leading them towards the development of appropriate instruments for themselves. The transition from visual to photoelectric methods could be portrayed as a natural evolution, replacing the eye by an alternative roviding more sensitivity and convenience – indeed, this is the conventional positivist view propounded by technical histories. However, the adoption of new measurement technologies seldom is simple, and frequently has a significant cultural component. Beneath this slide towards automation lay a raft of implicit assumptions about objectivity, the nature of the observer, the role of instruments, and the trade-offs between standardization and descriptive power. While espousing rational arguments for a physical detector of color, its proponents weighted their views with tacit considerations. The reassignment of trust from the eye to automated instruments was influenced as much by the historical context as by intellectual factors. I will argue that several distinct aspects were involved, which include the reductive view of color provided by the trichromatic theory; the impetus provided by its association with photometry; the expanding mood for a quantitative and objective approach to scientific observation; and, the pressures for commercial standardization. As suggested by these factors, there was another shift of authority at play: from one technical specialism to another. The regularization of color involved appropriation of the subject by a particular set of social interests: communities of physicists and engineers espousing a ‘physicalist’ interpretation, rather than psychologists and physiologists for whom color was conceived as a more complex phenomenon. Moreover, the sources for automated color measurement, and instrumentation for measuring color, were primarily from the industrial sphere rather than from academic science. To understand these shifts, then, this chapter explores differing views of the importance of observers, machines and automation.

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Sean F. Johnston
University of Glasgow


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