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Who first discovered color?

Who first discovered color?

Color has long fascinated humans. The ability to see and distinguish different colors is vital for interacting with the world around us. But who first discovered and began to understand the nature of color? The origins of human color perception have been lost to history, but scientists and philosophers through the ages have contributed pieces to unlocking the mysteries of this essential part of vision.

Early Theories on Light and Color

Some of the earliest recorded thinkers on the nature of color and light were ancient Greek philosophers like Pythagoras, Empedocles, and Democritus around 400 BC. They saw color as emerging from combinations of light and dark. Aristotle later proposed that all colors came from mixtures of black and white. During the same era in ancient China, Mozi made observations about how different colors are perceived at different times of day based on the quality of sunlight.

In the centuries that followed, Islamic scholars expanded on Greek color theories. In the 11th century AD, the scientist Alhazen performed experiments with lenses and prisms, developing a theory that sunlight was composed of different color components. He observed how prisms could split this light into the colors of the rainbow. Alhazen’s Book of Optics recorded foundational insights on the physics behind color and vision.

Advancements in Optics Lead to New Color Theories

In the 1600s, Sir Isaac Newton conducted revolutionary experiments on the refraction of light through prisms. His work revealed that sunlight was made up of the visible color spectrum, which could be recombined into white light. Newton recognized that color was not contained within objects themselves, but was a quality of light interacting with matter. He published his Opticks treatise in 1704 showcasing these groundbreaking theories.

Newton proposed that sunlight was a mixture of numerous differently colored “corpuscles” of light. Other scientists like Christiaan Huygens favored a wave theory where sunlight contained waves of different sizes corresponding to colors. This wave vs. particle debate over the fundamental nature of light and color continued for over a century. Thomas Young’s double-slit experiments in the early 1800s demonstrated interference patterns that could only be explained by the wave theory.

Trichromatic Color Vision Theories Emerge

In 1802, the English chemist Thomas Young proposed that color vision was based on three receptors in the eye responding to red, green, and blue light. This trichromatic theory was later verified and expanded by Hermann von Helmholtz in the 1850s. Helmholtz performed experiments measuring the absorption spectra for the three types of cone cells in the eye.

The modern understanding crystallized that color vision relies on three cone cell types preferentially detecting different wavelengths of light across the visible spectrum. Red cones are most sensitive to long wavelengths around 564–580 nm. Green cones pick up medium wavelengths of 534–545 nm. While blue cones are stimulated by short wavelengths near 420–440 nm. The combinations of signals from these three cone types allows the perception of the full range of colors.

Opponent Process Theory of Color Vision

In the 1950s, researchers Hubel and Wiesel discovered neurons in the visual cortex that responded to color opponency. Some cells fired to red versus green wavelengths, while others reacted to blue versus yellow. This provided biological evidence for the opponent process theory first proposed in the 19th century.

According to this theory, visual information is processed in opponent color pairs like:

Red vs. Green
Blue vs. Yellow
Black vs. White

This processing helps enhance color contrasts and extract more information from the cone cell signals. The opponent channels then feed into higher brain regions, leading to our final color experience.

Modern Understanding of Color Vision

Centuries of experiments and theories have uncovered the visual and neural processes that give us the gift of seeing color. We now know color perception starts with specialized photoreceptor cones and opponent color pathways in the eyes and brain. This feeds into higher visual areas where color is processed with other attributes like shape and motion.

While Isaac Newton helped reveal that color was intrinsic to light, not objects, our experience of color is shaped by complex biology, physics, and neural computations. The full richness of color vision connects us to the world and still holds mysteries to uncover. Ongoing research continues revealing the remarkable science behind our perception of color.