Christiaan Huygens: Biography, Facts & Discoveries

Instructor: Betsy Chesnutt

Betsy has a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering from the University of Memphis, M.S. from the University of Virginia, and B.S. from Mississippi State University. She has over 10 years of experience developing STEM curriculum and teaching physics, engineering, and biology.

Christiaan Huygens was one of the most important scientists and inventors of the seventeenth century, and many of his discoveries remain important even today. In this lesson, learn about his life and his many contributions to science.

Who was Christiaan Huygens?

During the 1600's, the scientific world was in the middle of a revolution. The superstitions of the Middle Ages were disappearing as a new picture of how the universe really works was emerging. This revolution was happening thanks to the work of a few brilliant scientists and thinkers. One of these revolutionaries was the Dutch mathematician and scientist Christiaan Huygens. A prolific researcher and inventor, he made critical contributions to a variety of scientific fields during his lifetime.

He is probably most well known for developing the wave theory of light, but he also discovered the shape of the rings of Saturn, made many contributions to our understanding of how forces affect the motion of objects, and built the world's first pendulum clock, which was the most accurate time keeping device ever made at that time. Huygens's pendulum clock enabled astronomers to make much more accurate measurements than they had been able to previously and led to many new astronomical discoveries.

The Dutch scientist and mathematician Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695)
The Dutch scientist and mathematician Christiaan Huygens

Early Life and Education

Huygens was born in 1629 in The Hague, a city in the middle of the Netherlands. His family was wealthy and prominent, and his father, who made his living primarily as a diplomat, included many scientists from all over Europe among his friends and correspondents. As a child, Huygens was tutored at home in a variety of subjects. From a young age, he demonstrated his mechanical abilities and a particular talent for mathematics. The famous philosopher and mathematician Rene Descartes visited the Huygens family regularly when he was a child, and young Christiaan impressed him with his abilities in geometry.

At the age of 16, Huygens enrolled in the University of Leiden, where he studied mathematics and law from 1645-1647. He then transferred to the College of Breda to continue his study of those subjects. It wasn't long before he would begin to make his mark on the world of science and mathematics, publishing his first papers, which addressed problems in mathematics, in 1651 and 1654.

Early Discoveries

Although Huygens's education primarily focused on mathematics, he would go on to make contributions to many scientific fields. In 1654, he developed a new way to make lenses and used his improved lenses to make a telescope that was a lot better than the telescopes commonly in use at the time. Using his new and improved telescope, he was able to accurately view the rings of Saturn for the first time, and he even discovered that Saturn had a moon, which was also something no one had been able to see before!

Description of the rings of Saturn in a book published by Huygens
Description of the rings of Saturn in a book published by Huygens (1629-1695)

Another problem that had plagued astronomers was the lack of an accurate way to measure time. Huygens decided to tackle this as well, and in 1656, produced the first pendulum clock, which was able to measure time much more accurately than other devices of the time. This led to many other astronomical discoveries, by Huygens and others.

Life in Paris

In 1666, Huygens moved to Paris where he helped to found the French Academy of Sciences and was one of its most prominent members. He would continue to live and work in Paris until 1881. While in Paris, Huygens collaborated with many scientists and mathematicians, including Robert Hooke, Blaise Pascal, and Gottfried Willhelm Liebniz.

In 1673, he published an extremely influential book called Horologium Oscillatorium. This important book included an explanation of the mathematics of curved surfaces and solutions to many problems related to circular and rotational motion.

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