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Who Invented the Color Wheel?

Instructor: Anne Butler

Anne has a bachelor's in K-12 art education and a master's in visual art and design. She currently works at a living history museum in Colorado.

Deciding on a paint color can be a difficult thing. When you go to the paint section of a store, you find yourself in front of a wall of hundreds of different shades of colors. All of these come from six basic colors, which were placed on a color wheel by one man- Sir Isaac Newton.

Quarantine Brings Discovery

Isaac Newton was studying at the University of Cambridge's Trinity College in the 1660's when the bubonic plague broke out and the school closed temporarily. This episode turned out to be the worst outbreak of bubonic plague since the Black Death in 1348. Newton returned to his family farm to wait out the plague.

Sir Isaac Newton
newton

Although the school was closed, Newton still continued learning. While under quarantine, Newton made several discoveries that would later make him famous. Newton is known for his laws of gravity, calculus, and laws of motion, but during this time he also made discoveries in the color spectrum.

Prisms and the Color Spectrum

During this time, most people thought that color was made up of a mixture of light and darkness. Theories of what created rainbows had been floating around for a while, but Newton was the one who really figured it out. While back at the family farm, Newton decided to add to his learning by experimenting with color and figuring out what white light was made of. Taking a prism, he held it up to a hole in his curtain and projected the beam onto a white piece of paper. From here the light was still white, but he could see red and blue on the edges of the light.

The first beam of sunlight had been from a hole, so then he used a slit instead. By changing the size of the light beam, he was able to project more colors onto the piece of paper- the colors we now know as red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. Newton was able to discover that if he added an additional prism and put it upside down in front of the first prism, he was able to make the beam of light white again. He also experimented with a disc painted with the colors in the spectrum. The disc was spun and the spinning colors turned white.

Prism showing dispersal of light
prism

Color Circle
circle

Opticks

When school resumed after the plague had dissipated, Newton was eager to present his findings to his school community. He showed them the prism experiment and other things he had learned. These discoveries were later combined and published in different papers. These were later to become Newton's Opticks: or a Treatise of the Reflexions, Refractions, Inflexions and Colors of Light, which was first published in 1704. This included his color circle, which artists use today as a color wheel.

Page of a later publication of Opticks
opticks

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