Although it is the embodiment of the eternal, light has birthdays, anniversaries, and landmark dates. The long and circuitous route to its discovery and control happened on a human scale. The curious crowd who added to our understanding of light followed a human calendar.
Here are some of the dates:
January 7, 1610
Galileo reveals his observation of Jupiter’s moons through his new telescope. Naming them after the Medici family, he will write: “Behold, therefore, four stars reserved for your illustrious name … which make their journeys and orbits with a marvelous speed around the star of Jupiter… like children of the same family.”
January 8, 1942
Stephen Hawking is born.
January 11, 1672
Isaac Newton is elected to London’s Royal Society. Newton’s quarrels with society member Robert Hooke will last for the next three decades. During this time, Newton will publish his Principia, detailing the calculus, but will refuse to publish his discoveries about light.
January 11, 1787
William Herschel discovers two moons of Uranus
January 13, 1151
Abbot Suger, the diminutive cleric whose love of light inspired the first Gothic cathedral at Saint-Denis, dies. Within fifty years, light will shine through stained glass in cathedrals throughout Northern Europe. “For bright is that which is brightly coupled with the bright,” Suger proclaimed, “And bright is the noble edifice which is pervaded by the new light.”
January 26, 2011
NASA announces Hubble imaging of most distant object in universe — 13.2 billion light years away
January 27, 1880
Edison’s first light bulb receives a patent.
January 30, 1961
Bell Labs announces the first voice transmission with a laser. The first message, “Come here, Watson, I need you,” mirrors Alexander Graham Bell’s first telephone transmission. The New York Times headlines, “BELL SHOWS BEAM OF TALKING LIGHT”
Isaac Newton’s The Opticks is published in London. Its revolutionary view of white light as made of separate and indivisible colors draws little response at first. “The book makes no Noyse in Town as The Principia did,” Astronomer Royal John Flamsteed writes. Within a generation, The Opticks will be studied throughout Europe.
February 6, 1672
Newton’s prism experiments first described to London’s Royal Society: “As the rays of light differ in degrees of Refrangibility, so they also differ in their disposition to exhibit this or that particular colour.”
February 11, 1847
Thomas Edison is born.
Feb. 14, 1404
Leon Battista Alberti, the Renaissance man whose treatise “On Painting” laid out rules for capturing light on canvas, is born. “Painters should first of all study carefully the lights and shades.”
Feb. 15, 1574
Galileo Galilei is born.
February 28, 1948
Stephen Chu, Nobel laureate and pioneer of “laser cooling,” is born.
Voltaire publishes The Elements of Newton’s Philosophy Within Reach of Everyone. While other Frenchmen doubted Newton, Voltaire hailed him as a genius “whose equal is hardly found in a thousand years.” Noting that Newton had dissected light “with more dexterity than the ablest artist dissects a human body,” Voltaire proclaimed, “This man is come.”
March 5, 1787
Joseph von Fraunhofer, who discovered the unique spectral lines emitted by different chemicals, is born.
March 9, 1893
Claude Monet, holed up in drizzly Rouen, France, labors to paint the city’s Gothic cathedral in differing shades of light. “Even though I am working, I am getting nowhere,” Monet writes to his wife. “I feel that I am becoming weary; I am at the end of my tether, and this proves clearly that I have completely emptied my bag.”
March 14, 1879
Albert Einstein is born.
March 15, 1819
Augustin-Jean Fresnel wins contest at the Academie des Sciences in Paris proving that light travels like a wave. The Fresnel integrals are still used to calculate and simulate light in video games.
March 17, 1817
Academie des Sciences announces contest to prove wave theory of light. The contest is designed to support the shaken belief in Newton’s particle theory of light, but it backfires (see previous entry.)
March 20, 1916
Einstein’s general relativity published; Newton dies in London — 1627.
Nowruz, the Iranian Festival of Light that stems from Zoroastrian traditions, begins.
March 29, 1629
Five suns appear in the sky over Rome. The circle of sun dogs baffles astronomers until Rene Descartes uses the apparition as inspiration for his first book, The World: A Treatise on Light. “Fearing that I could not put everything I had in mind in my discourse,” Descartes writes, “I understood to expound fully only what I knew about light.
April 2, 1618
Father Francesco Grimaldi, discoverer of the diffraction of light, is born.
April 3, 1846
Michael Faraday, speaking at the London Royal Society’s Friday Evening Discourses, first suggests that light might be electro-magnetic energy.
April 14, 1629
Christiaan Huygens, first to posit that light is a wave, is born.
April 23, 1775
J.M.W. Turner is born. Later acclaimed the “painter of light,” Turner will proclaim, “The sun is god.”April 23, 1858 – Max Planck, who first proposed that energy comes in packets he called “quanta,” is born.
April 27, 1676
After years of feuding and resistance, Robert Hooke performs Newton’s experiments at London’s Royal Society. The light behaved, one Society member writes, “according to Mr. Newton’s directions, and succeeded, as he all along had asserted it would do.”
April 29, 1798
Light makes its first sound at the premiere of Haydn’s “The Creation” at Schwarzenburg Palace in Vienna.
May 6, 1943
Light and Space artist James Turrell is born. Turrell’s innovative use of light as a medium will astonish the art world. “We eat light, drink it in through our skins.”
May 9, 1962
MIT scientists bounce a laser beam off the moon.
May 10, 1788
Augustin-Jean Fresnel is born. Along with proving the wave theory of light (March 15) Fresnel will revolutionize lenses and lighthouses.
May 10, 1895
Monet’s 20 cathedrals open at Durand-Ruel Gallery. Critical reaction is mixed. One calls the cathedrals “exasperated and morbid,” but another hails the series as “a revolution without a gunshot.”
May 11, 1918
Richard Feynman, who will unlock the secrets of Quantum Electrodynamics — how light interacts with matter — is born. “There was a moment when I knew how Nature worked,” the irreverent Feynman once said. “It had elegance and beauty. The goddamn thing was gleaming.”
May 16, 1960
In a dark lab in Malibu, California, using a flash bulb, mirrors, and a chunk of ruby, Theodore Maiman creates the first laser beam.
May 17, 1861
James Clerk Maxwell overlaps red, green, and blue images to display the first color photograph.
May 24, 1935
The first night baseball game is played at Cincinnati’s Crosley Field. The Reds beat the Phillies 2-1.
May 28, 1606
The Italian Master of Light known as Caravaggio kills a man in duel, then flees Rome.
May 29, 1919
Calculating the shift of starlight passing the sun during a solar eclipse, British physicist Sir Arthur Eddington confirms Einstein’s relativity.
June 1, 1265
Dante is born. From the Paradiso:
many living lights of blinding brightness
make of us a center and of themselves a crown
their voices even sweeter than the radiance of their faces.
June 5, 1900
Dennis Gabor, inventor of holography, is born.
June 6, 1884
Nicola Tesla, whose alternating current (AC) will popularize electric lighting, arrives in America.
June 9, 1905
Annalen der Physik publishes Einstein’s paper on the photoelectric effect, how light frees quanta of energy from a metal plate. The paper adds weight to Max Planck’s theory of quanta.
June 11, 1144
The first Gothic cathedral, Saint Denis, opens in Paris.
June 12, 1689
Isaac Newton and Christiaan Huygens meet for the only time at meeting of London’s Royal Society.
June 13, 1773
Thomas Young, whose two-slit experiment demonstrates the interference of light waves, is born.
June 13, 1831
James Clerk Maxwell, who first proposed light as electro-magnetic energy. is born.
Tens of thousands gather annually for the solstice sunrise at Stonehenge.
July 2, 1906
Hans Bethe, who calculated the nuclear and chemical process through which the sun makes light, is born.
July 4, 1054
Huge supernova appears, is recorded in China.
July 4, 1879
Albert Michelson begins speed of light experiments at US Naval Academy. Michelson will spend the rest of his life pursuing the exact speed of light.
July 5, 1687
Newton publishes The Principia.
July 7, 1960
At a press conference at Delmonico’s Restaurant in Manhattan, Hughes Laboratories announces Theodore Maiman’s invention of the laser. Baffled reporters struggle to understand “coherent light.” Many ask if it could make a “death ray.”
July 8, 1887
In a basement outside Cleveland, Ohio, Albert Michelson begins the experiment that will disprove the existence of “luminiferous ether” and pave the way for Einstein’s relativity.
July 15, 1606
Rembrandt is born.
July 17, 1920
Physicist Gordon Gould, who named the laser, is born. Gould will lose the race to make the first laser but after decades of lawsuits, will win dozens of patents and millions of dollars.
July 23, 1775
Etienne-Louis Malus, the French lieutenant who discovered polarized light, is born.
July 25, 1823
The first Fresnel lighthouse shines at Courdouan, off the coast of France.
July 30, 1969
A laser aimed at a mirror set up by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin calculates the distance to the moon within an inch.
August 12, 1881
Thomas Edison buys on old building on Pearl Street in Manhattan and begins project to light up New York’s financial district.
August 15, 1938
An obscure paper published in the American Physical Review explains how the sun makes light. It draws little attention but will win Hans Bethe the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1967.
August 19, 1839
Louis Daguerre’s photographic process is first presented in Paris. Within a week, the City of Light is seized by “daguerreotypomania” as hundreds try to imitate the process. Within a year, daguerreotype studios are in Paris, London, and New York.
August 25, 1609
Galileo demonstrates his telescope in Venice. Though he did not invent the device, he has crafted his own model upping the power from 3x to 20x.
August 28, 1749
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is born. Along with Faust and other masterpieces, Goethe will spend twenty years refuting Newton’s color theories, crafting his own blend of psychology and science into Zur Fahrbenlehre. Published in 1810, the 1,400 page book will be hailed by artists, denounced by scientists.
Sept. 4, 1882
With the flick of a switch, Edison lights up lower Manhattan from Pearl Street station. The New York Times, whose offices Edison had been careful to include in the project, writes: “The light was soft and mellow and grateful to the eye and it seemed almost like writing by daylight, to have a light without a particle of flicker and with scarcely any heat to make the head ache.”
Sept. 8, 1966
The crew of the U..S.S. Enterprise, on NBC’s new show “Star Trek” first sets their phasers for stun.
September 10, 1967
CBS airs “Laser: The Light Fantastic.”
Sept. 17, 1839
Louis Daguerre demonstrates his process for reporters. “I have seized the fleeting light. I have forced the sun to take pictures for me.”
Sept. 18, 1845
Using a 500 pound electro-magnet and polarizing lenses, Michael Faraday twists a beam of light. “ALL THIS IS A DREAM,” he later writes. “Still, examine it by a few experiments. Nothing is too wonderful to be true, if it be consistent with the laws of nature.”
Sept. 22, 1791
Michael Faraday born.
Sept. 26, 1905
Einstein publishes his theory of special relativity. Using the fixed speed of light as its constant, the theory makes time and space relative. “For the rest of my life,” he will later write, “I will reflect on what light is.”
Sept. 29, 1571
Michelangelo Merisi, aka Caravaggio, is born. “Painting is light.”
Oct. 7, 1885
Niels Bohr, whose model of the atom will advance quantum theory, is born. “We must learn to think more subtly than in the past.””
October 9, 1604
A supernova burns the skies over Prague and Pisa, catching the attention of Kepler and Galileo.
October 16, 1878
Edison Electric Light Company issues its first stock, 3000 shares.
October 17, 1604
Kepler begins observing the supernova and writing about it.
October 21, 1879
Edison’s first lasting light bulb burns all night in his Menlo Park, NJ lab.
Oct. 21, 1929
Celebrating the 50th anniversary of Edison’s light, all lights in the US extinguished for a minute.
October 24, 1927
The world’s premiere physicists gather for the fifthc Solvay Conference in Brussels. The topic is the new quantum theory. Einstein and Bohr will engage in lengthy debates. “God does not play dice,” Einstein says, to which Bohr counters, “It cannot be for us to tell God how He is to run the world.”
Oct. 31, 1632
Johannes Vermeer is born.
November 4, 1879
Edison files for a patent for his first long-lasting light bulb.
November 9, 1919
As announced in London, calculations made during the solar eclipse the previous May prove Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Passing starlight does bend around the sun. Overnight Einstein becomes world famous.
November 12, 1801
Shaking assurance in Newton’s laws, Thomas Young describes the interference of overlapping light waves to London’s Royal Society. The theory will be widely rejected until Fresnel calculates the wave properties of light.
November 12, 1842
Lord Rayleigh, whose discovery of Rayleigh Scattering explains why the sky is blue, is born.
November 13, 1577
The Great Comet of 1577 appears, spanning a third of the night sky.
November 14, 1840
Claude Monet is born.
November 18, 1787
Louis-Jacques Mande Daguerre, inventor of photography, is born.
November 28, 1817
John Keats finishes his paean to the moon, Endymion.
What is there in thee, Moon! That thou shouldst move
My heart so potently? When yet a child
I oft have dried my tears when thou hast smil’d. . .
Dec. 5, 1901
Werner Heisenberg, whose Uncertainty Principle will solidify quantum theory, is born.
December 8, 1864
James Clerk Maxwell stuns and baffles London’s Royal Society with his paper announcing that light is electro-magnetic energy.
December 11, 1965
Gemini astronauts beam the first laser message from space.
December 14, 1900
Max Planck presents theory of quanta to the German Physical Society. Planck has devised the theory to explain problems with “black body radiation” and heat. He does not believe light to involve quanta, but Einstein will prove him wrong.
December 17, 1706
Emile du Chatelet, French math genius who will translate Newton and live with Voltaire, is born.
December 21, 1967
Irish archaeologist Michael J. O’Kelly scrambles into the underground chamber at Newgrange, Ireland to test rumors that it lights up at the winter solstice sunrise. O’Kelly sees light inch up the tunnel in arrows. The first shafts strike the stone walls, then blaze along the floor — a beam at first, then a flare “lighting up everything,” O’Kelly will remember, “until the whole chamber, side recesses, floor, and roof six meters above the floor were all clearly illuminated.” Word spreads and hundreds now gather every year at Newgrange for the solstice sunrise.
December 21, 1879
Edison’s light bulb astounds the New York Herald: ELECTRIC ILLUMINATION – A SCRAP OF PAPER – IT MAKES A LIGHT, WITHOUT GAS OR FLAME, CHEAPER THAN OIL – SUCCESS IN A COTTON THREAD.
December 27, 1571
Johannes Kepler, whose studies will advance the field of optics, is born. Light is “the most excellent thing in the whole corporeal world,” he will write, yet in what should be read with a trumpet’s blare, he announces that it “has passed over into the same laws by which the world was to be furnished.”
December 28, 1895
August and Louis Lumiere open their first moving picture cinema in Paris.
December 31, 1879
Crowds flock to Menlo Park, NJ on New Year’s Eve to see Edison’s lights shining throughout his laboratory. One reporter calls the bulb “a little globe of sunshine.”