Christiaan Huygens

Home » History Greatest People » Christiaan Huygens

Born at The Hague in the Netherlands in 1629, Huygens was the child of an important family.

He studied at home under private tutors and, through his father, interacted with prominent visitors such as French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes.

He studied law and mathematics at the University of Leiden, and then at the College of Orange at Breda.

With the help of his brother, he came up with a better method of grinding and polishing the lenses, providing greater clarity.

He turned one of his improved telescopes toward the planet Saturn, which had shown an elongated appearance in less accurate observations.

Huygens determined that the distorted planet boasted several rings.

Although his finding was initially not well received, further observations confirmed Saturn was indeed a ringed planet.

Huygens also focused on light and its mechanics.

In the 17th century, three theories about how light functioned existed in various stages.

The first suggested that the eye sent out something which registered the world around it.

The second proposed that objects emitted something which hit the eye.

The third advocated that a medium between the eye and the environment around it changed between the object and the eye, allowing for sight.

Huygens contributed to the understanding of mechanics when he determined that collisions between bodies neither lose nor gain momentum within the system.

A single object may transfer its momentum to another object in a collision.

He proposed that the an object’s center of gravity moves in a straight line, and calculated the formula for centrifugal force, the outward-pushing force on a rotating body.

Van Schooten tutored him in mathematics while he was in Leiden.

Although John Pell was a teacher at Breda about this time, he seems to have had little contact with Huygens.

Through his father’s contact with Mersenne, a correspondence between Huygens and Mersenne began around this time.

Mersenne challenged Huygens to solve a number of problems including the shape of the rope supported from its ends.

Although he failed at this problem he did solve the related problem of how to hang weights on the rope so that it hung in a parabolic shape.

In 1661 Huygens visited London, particularly to find out more about the newly forming Royal Society meeting at that time in Gresham College.

He was greatly impressed with Wallis and the other English scientists whom he met and, from this time on, he was to continue his contacts with this group.

He showed his telescopes to the English scientists and they proved superior to those in use in England.

The Duke and Duchess of York came to observe the Moon and Saturn through Huygens’ telescope.

While in London Huygens saw Boyle’s vacuum pump and he was impressed.

After his return to The Hague he carried out a number of Boyle’s experiments for himself.

Christiaan Huygens was seriously ill in the last five years of his life.

He died on July 8, 1695. He was 66 years old.

Huygens was buried in Grote Kerk.