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Was the color wheel invented in 1666 by Isaac Newton?

The origins of the color wheel, a circular representation used to illustrate color theory and relationships, have been widely debated with credit given to various scientists and artists over several centuries. While Isaac Newton’s contributions to the understanding of color and light in the 17th century were crucial, the invention of the color wheel as we know it is generally not attributed solely to him nor the year 1666 specifically.

Early Color Studies

The ancient Greek philosophers, including Pythagoras, Plato and Aristotle, studied color theory and made significant advancements in linking colors to music and the metaphysical. However, their color studies were limited as they believed there were only four primary colors – black, white, red and yellow. The Greek theory of colors influenced later Renaissance artists including Leonardo da Vinci who expanded upon the four colors in his own color wheel.

In 1611, the German philosopher Robert Fludd published his “sphere of colors” showing a circle with the four Greek primary colors and some intermediary colors between them. This early circular diagram laid some groundwork for the color wheel concept.

Isaac Newton’s Color Wheel

Sir Isaac Newton conducted experiments with prisms in the 1660s, observing the separation of sunlight into a rainbow spectrum of colors. In his 1672 book Opticks, Newton included a color wheel to present his color theory that white light was a composition of seven distinct colors – red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet.

Newton associated each color with a musical note, intending for his color wheel to represent a correlation between color and sound frequencies. His work with optics and color theory formed the basis for modern color science.

However, Newton’s original color wheel from 1672 was a linear spectrum, not a circle. It was meant to show the full range of rainbow colors appearing in a beam of sunlight. The circular color wheel concept did not originate with Newton himself in 1666, though he made vital contributions to its development.

Ewald Hering’s Opponent Color Theory

In the late 19th century, German physiologist Ewald Hering proposed an opponent color theory based on how colors are perceived by the eye. His work influenced the layout of color wheel models to come.

Hering identified three sets of “opponent colors” – red versus green, blue versus yellow, and black versus white. The opposing colors appear on opposite sides of Hering’s color wheel diagram. This opposition indicates that the eye does not perceive these colors together. Hering’s opponent color pairs became an essential aspect of future color wheel models.

Goethe’s Color Theory

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the famous German writer and polymath, explored color and emotion in his 1810 book Theory of Colours. While less rooted in science than Newton’s color theory, Goethe’s work included descriptive associations between colors and psychological states.

Goethe arranged his color wheel symbolically, with the three primary colors – yellow, red and blue – forming an equilateral triangle in the center. He expanded upon this with additional rings of colors radiating outward. His intuitive and philosophical approach contrasted with Newton’s physics-based ideas.

Munsell’s Color System

In the early 20th century, the American painter and professor Albert H. Munsell sought to systematically measure colors. He developed the Munsell Color System in 1915, refining it over decades. Munsell’s system organized colors into a circular format to intuitively show relationships.

The Munsell Color Wheel includes separate dimensions of hue, chroma (saturation) and value (lightness). This allows for the precise specification of millions of colors based on their position in 3D color space. Munsell’s highly-influential work enabled a new level of accuracy in color study, measurement and specification.

Bauhaus and the Subtractive Color Wheel

The German Bauhaus school adopted a simplified color wheel in the 1920s for design instruction. This version focused on the subtractive primary colors – cyan, magenta and yellow – which are used in printing. The Bauhaus color wheel uses these three colors along with their intermediates and complements.

This shift from additive RGB colors to subtractive CMY colors marked an important development, as the subtractive wheel better represents color mixing with paints, dyes and inks. Bauhaus teachers like Josef Albers built invaluable color theory resources using this model.


While Isaac Newton did not invent the color wheel concept itself in 1666, his 17th century work with optics and color theory was essential to the origins of the color wheel. The contributions of Newton, Hering, Goethe, Munsell and the Bauhaus forged the foundations of the color wheel as we know it today.

The color wheel remains a vital tool for color study across science, art and design. However, its invention and evolution involved the collective work of many great minds over centuries. There is no single definitive inventor nor inception date behind the color wheel. It emerged gradually through centuries of color research and experimentation.

Scientist/Artist Color Wheel Contribution Date
Isaac Newton Studies with prisms, color spectrum, color and music correlations 1672
Ewald Hering Opponent color theory Late 1800s
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe Associations between color and emotion 1810
Albert Munsell Munsell color system for measuring color 1915
Bauhaus Subtractive color wheel for design 1920s

In summary, the invention of the color wheel spans centuries and involves the incremental work of multiple pioneers. While Newton’s contributions in the 1600s were monumentally important, evidence suggests the modern color wheel concept did not originate fully formed by him in 1666.