Read APPENDIX. of Six Lectures on Light Delivered In The United States In 1872-1873, free online book, by John Tyndall, on


Mr. William Spottiswoode introduced some years ago to the members of the Royal Institution, in a very striking form, a series of experiments on the spectra of polarized light. With his large Nicol prisms he in the first place repeated and explained the experiments of Foucault and Fizeau, and subsequently enriched the subject by very beautiful additions of his own. I here append a portion of the abstract of his discourse:-

’It is well known that if a plate of selenite sufficiently thin be placed between two Nicol’s prisms, or, more technically speaking, between a polarizer and analyzer, colour will be produced. And the question proposed is, What is the nature of that colour? is it simply a pure colour of the spectrum, or is it a compound, and if so, what are its component parts? The answer given by the wave theory is in brief this: In its passage through the selenite plate the rays have been so separated in the direction of their vibrations and in the velocity of their transmission, that, when re-compounded by means of the analyzer, they have in some instances neutralized one another. If this be the case, the fact ought to be visible when the beam emerging from the analyzer is dispersed by the prism; for then we have the rays of all the different colours ranged side by side, and, if any be wanting, their absence will be shown by the appearance of a dark band in their place in the spectrum. But not only so; the spectrum ought also to give an account of the other phenomena exhibited by the selenite when the analyzer is turned round, viz. that when the angle of turning amounts to 45 deg., all trace of colour disappears; and also that when the angle amounts to 90 deg., colour reappears, not, however, the original colour, but one complementary to it.

’You see in the spectrum of the reddish light produced by the selenite a broad but dark band in the blue; when the analyzer is turned round the band becomes less and less dark, until when the angle of turning amounts to 45 deg. it has entirely disappeared. At this stage each part of the spectrum has its own proportional intensity, and the whole produces the colourless image seen without the spectroscope. Lastly, as the turning of the analyzer is continued, a dark band appears in the red, the part of the spectrum complementary to that occupied by the first band; and the darkness is most complete when the turning amounts to 90 deg.. Thus we have from the spectroscope a complete account of what has taken place to produce the original colour and its changes.

’It is further well known that the colour produced by a selenite, or other crystal plate, is dependent upon the thickness of the plate. And, in fact, if a series of plates be taken, giving different colours, their spectra are found to show bands arranged in different positions. The thinner plates show bands in the parts of the spectrum nearest to the violet, where the waves are shorter, and consequently give rise to redder colours; while the thicker show bands nearer to the red, where the waves are longer and consequently supply bluer tints.

’When the thickness of the plate is continually increased, so that the colour produced has gone through the complete cycle of the spectrum, a further increase of thickness causes a reproduction of the colours in the same order; but it will be noticed that at each recurrence of the cycle the tints become paler, until when a number of cycles have been performed, and the thickness of the plate is considerable, all trace of colour is lost. Let us now take a series of plates, the first two of which, as you see, give colours; with the others which are successively of greater thickness the tints are so feeble that they can scarcely be distinguished. The spectrum of the first shows a single band; that of the second, two; showing that the second series of tints is not identical with the first, but that it is produced by the extinction of two colours from the components of white light. The spectra of the others show series of bands more and more numerous in proportion to the thickness of the plate, an array which may be increased indefinitely. The total light, then, of which the spectrum is deprived by the thicker plates is taken from a greater number of its parts; or, in other words, the light which still remains is distributed more and more evenly over the spectrum; and in the same proportion the sum total of it approaches more and more nearly to white light.

’These experiments were made more than thirty years ago by the
French philosophers, MM. Foucault and Fizeau.

’If instead of selenite, Iceland spar, or other ordinary crystals, we use plates of quartz cut perpendicularly to the axis, and turn the analyzer round as before, the light, instead of exhibiting only one colour and its complementary with an intermediate stage in which colour is absent, changes continuously in tint; and the order of the colour depends partly upon the direction in which the analyzer is turned, and partly upon the character of the crystal, i.e. whether it is right-handed or left-handed. If we examine the spectrum in this case we find that the dark band never disappears, but marches from one end of the spectrum to another, or vice versa, precisely in such a direction as to give rise to the tints seen by direct projection.

’The kind of polarization effected by the quartz plates is called circular, while that effected by the other class of crystals is called plane, on account of the form of the vibrations executed by the molecules of aether; and this leads us to examine a little more closely the nature of the polarization of different parts of these spectra of polarized light.

’Now, two things are clear: first, that if the light be plane-polarized-that is, if all the vibrations throughout the entire ray are rectilinear and in one plane-they must in all their bearings have reference to a particular direction in space, so that they will be differently affected by different positions of the analyzer. Secondly, that if the vibrations be circular, they will be affected in precisely the same way (whatever that may be) in all positions of the analyzer. This statement merely recapitulates a fundamental point in polarization. In fact, plane-polarized light is alternately transmitted and extinguished by the analyzer as it is turned through 90 deg.; while circularly polarized light [if we could get a single ray] remains to all appearance unchanged. And if we examine carefully the spectrum of light which has passed through a selenite, or other ordinary crystal, we shall find that, commencing with two consecutive bands in position, the parts occupied by the bands and those midway between them are plane-polarized, for they become alternately dark and bright; while the intermediate parts, i.e. the parts at one-fourth of the distance from one band to the next, remain permanently bright. These are, in fact, circularly polarized. But it would be incorrect to conclude from this experiment alone that such is really the case, because the same appearance would be seen if those parts were unpolarized, i.e. in the condition of ordinary lights. And on such a supposition we should conclude with equal justice that the parts on either side of the parts last mentioned (e.g. the parts separated by eighth parts of the interval between two bands) were partially polarized. But there is an instrument of very simple construction, called a “quarter-undulation plate,” a plate usually of mica, whose thickness is an odd multiple of a quarter of a wave-length, which enables us to discriminate between light unpolarized and circularly polarized. The exact mechanical effect produced upon the ray could hardly be explained in detail within our present limits of time; but suffice it for the present to say that, when placed in a proper position, the plate transforms plane into circular and circular into plane polarization. That being so, the parts which were originally banded ought to remain bright, and those which originally remained bright ought to become banded during the rotation of the analyzer. The general effect to the eye will consequently be a general shifting of the bands through one-fourth of the space which separates each pair.

’Circular polarization, like circular motion generally, may of course be of two kinds, which differ only in the direction of the motion. And, in fact, to convert the circular polarization produced by this plate from one of these kinds to the other (say from right-handed to left-handed, or vice versa), we have only to turn the plate round through 90 deg.. Conversely, right-handed circular polarization will be changed by the plate into plane-polarization in one direction, while left-handed will be changed into plane at right angles to the first. Hence if the plate be turned round through 90 deg. we shall see that the bands are shifted in a direction opposite to that in which they were moved at first. In this therefore we have evidence not only that the polarization immediately on either side of a band is circular; but also that that immediately on the one side is right-handed, while that immediately on the other is left-handed.

’If time permitted, I might enter still further into detail, and show that the polarization between the plane and the circular is elliptical, and even the positions of the longer and shorter axes and the direction of motion in each case. But sufficient has, perhaps, been said for our present purpose.

’Before proceeding to the more varied forms of spectral bands, which I hope presently to bring under your notice, I should like to ask your attention for a few minutes to the peculiar phenomena exhibited when two plates of selenite giving complementary colours are used. The appearance of the spectrum varies with the relative position of the plates. If they are similarly placed-that is, as if they were one plate of crystal-they will behave as a single plate, whose thickness is the sum of the thicknesses of each, and will produce double the number of bands which one alone would give; and when the analyzer is turned, the bands will disappear and re-appear in their complementary positions, as usual in the case of plane-polarization. If one of them be turned round through 45 deg., a single band will be seen at a particular position in the spectrum. This breaks into two, which recede from one another towards the red and violet ends respectively, or advance towards one another according to the direction in which the analyzer is turned. If the plate be turned through 45 deg. in the opposite direction, the effects will be reversed. The darkness of the bands is, however, not equally complete during their whole passage. Lastly, if one of the plates be turned through 90 deg., no bands will be seen, and the spectrum will be alternately bright and dark, as if no plates were used, except only that the polarization is itself turned through 90 deg..

’If a wedge-shaped crystal be used, the bands, instead of being straight, will cross the spectrum diagonally, the direction of the diagonal (dexter or sinister) being determined by the position of the thicker end of the wedge. If two similar wedges be used with their thickest ends together, they will act as a wedge whose angle and whose thickness is double of the first. If they be placed in the reverse position they will act as a flat plate, and the bands will again cross the spectrum in straight lines at right angles to its length.

’If a concave plate be used the bands will dispose themselves in a
fanlike arrangement, their divergence depending upon the distance of
the slit from the centre of concavity.

’If two quartz wedges, one of which has the optic axis parallel to the edge of the refractory angle, and the other perpendicular to it, but in one of the planes containing the angle (Babinet’s Compensator), the appearances of the bands are very various.

’The diagonal bands, besides sometimes doubling themselves as with ordinary wedges, sometimes combine so as to form longitudinal (instead of transverse) bands; and sometimes cross one another so as to form a diaper pattern with bright compartments in a dark framework, and vice versa, according to the position of the plates.

’The effects of different dispositions of the interposed crystals might be varied indefinitely; but enough has perhaps been said to show the delicacy of the method of spectrum analysis as applied to the examination of polarized light.’

The singular and beautiful effect obtained with a circular plate of selenite, thin at the centre, and gradually thickening towards the circumference, is easily connected with a similar effect obtained with Newton’s rings. Let a thin slice of light fall upon the glasses which show the rings, so as to cover a narrow central vertical zone passing through them all. The image of this zone upon the screen is crossed by portions of the iris-rings. Subjecting the reflected beam to prismatic analysis, the resultant spectrum may be regarded as an indefinite number of images of the zone placed side by side. In the image before dispersion we have iris-rings, the extinction of the light being nowhere complete; but when the different colours are separated by dispersion, each colour is crossed transversely by its own system of dark interference bands, which become gradually closer with the increasing refrangibility of the light. The complete spectrum, therefore, appears furrowed by a system of continuous dark bands, crossing the colours transversely, and approaching each other as they pass from red to blue.

In the case of the plate of selenite, a slit is placed in front of the polarizer, and the film of selenite is held close to the slit, so that the light passes through the central zone of the film. As in the case of Newton’s rings, the image of the zone is crossed by iris-coloured bands; but when subjected to prismatic dispersion, the light of the zone yields a spectrum furrowed by bands of complete darkness exactly as in the case of Newton’s rings and for a similar reason. This is the beautiful effect described by Mr. Spottiswoode as the fanlike arrangement of the bands-the fan opening out at the red end of the spectrum.


The diffraction fringes described in Lecture II., instead of being formed on the retina, may be formed on a screen, or upon ground glass, when they can be looked at through a magnifying lens from behind, or they can be observed in the air when the ground glass is removed. Instead of permitting them to form on the retina, we will suppose them formed on a screen. This places us in a condition to understand, even without trigonometry, the solution of the important problem of measuring the length of a wave of light.

We will suppose the screen so distant that the rays falling upon it from the two margins of the slit are sensibly parallel. We have learned in Lecture II. that the first of the dark bands corresponds to a difference of marginal path of one undulation; the second dark band to a difference of path of two undulations; the third dark band to a difference of three undulations, and so on. Now the angular distance of the bands from the centre is capable of exact measurement; this distance depending, as already stated, on the width of the slit. With a slit 1.35 millimeter wide, Schwerd found the angular distance of the first dark band from the centre of the field to be 1’38”; the angular distances of the second, third, fourth dark bands being twice, three times, four times this quantity.

Let A B, fi, be the plate in which the slit is cut, and C D the grossly exaggerated width of the slit, with the beam of red light proceeding from it at the obliquity corresponding to the first dark band. Let fall a perpendicular from one edge, D, of the slit on the marginal ray of the other edge at d. The distance, C d, between the foot of this perpendicular and the other edge is the length of a wave of the light. The angle C D d, moreover, being equal to R C R’, is, in the case now under consideration, 1’38”. From the centre D, with the width D C as radius, describe a semicircle; its radius D C being 1.35 millimeter, the length of this semicircle is found by an easy calculation to be 4.248 millimeters. The length C d is so small that it sensibly coincides with the arc of the circle. Hence the length of the semicircle is to the length C d of the wave as 180 deg. to 1’38”, or, reducing all to seconds, as 648,000” to 98”. Thus, we have the proportion-

648,000 : 98 :: 4.248 to the wave-length C d.

Making the calculation, we find the wave-length for this particular kind of light to be 0.000643 of a millimeter, or 0.000026 of an inch.