Thomas Young (physicist)

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Thomas Young

Thomas Young (born June 13, 1773 in Milverton , Somersetshire , † May 10, 1829 in London ) was an English ophthalmologist and physicist . He was also interested in botany and described some plants. Its botanical author abbreviation is " Young ".

Live and act

Göttingen memorial plaque for Thomas Young at the "Michaelishaus" in Prinzenstrasse 21

Young came from a family of Quakers . He was a very versatile person who spoke several languages ​​even as a boy. He first studied medicine and received his doctorate in Göttingen in 1796 . As early as 1794 he became a Fellow of the Royal Society , London, for his work on the near accommodation of the eye. From 1801 to 1804 he was Professor of Physics at the Royal Institute, most recently Secretary of the Board of Longitude. Young was the first to show that the wave theory of light could explain some phenomena that could not be reconciled with Isaac Newton's corpuscle theory , which viewed light as a particle stream, e.g. B. Newton's rings . In a lecture from 1801 (printed in 1802) he was the first to propose the so-called three - color theory of vision, which Hermann von Helmholtz developed into what is now called the Young-Helmholtz theory.

Young was the first to measure the wavelengths of light and used the interference in his experiments . He gave François Arago the impetus to treat light rays as transverse waves . One of his experiments on the wave nature of light and on interference was the double slit experiment , which later played an important role in quantum mechanics .

Kymograph with tuning fork

Jean Marie Constant Duhamel had discovered that a pencil could be combined with a tuning fork in such a way that it reproduced the vibrations of the tuning fork as a wavy line. On the basis of this discovery, Young built the first kymograph ( wave writer), which he described in 1807 in the text A course of lectures on natural philosophy and mechanical arts . With this device he was able to record the vibrations of a tuning fork on a soot-blackened rotating roller. His apparatus is regarded as the forerunner of the phonograph and this principle as the basis for recording and analyzing tones, such as the combination tone he studied .

He also made important contributions to the deciphering of the Egyptian hieroglyphs . He was considered the main rival of the French Jean-François Champollion , who ultimately achieved the breakthrough - partly on the basis of Young's findings. However, neither was confused by the widespread belief of 17th century scholars. They could not imagine that such an early culture should have used phonographic symbols, but assumed that the hieroglyphs were ideograms . In the English-speaking world, it was Thomas Young who introduced the term “ indo-European ”.

Young also made great strides in deciphering and translating the demotic , which he called the enchorial . Because of this designation, it was never noticed outside of specialist circles and the deciphering was attributed to Heinrich Brugsch .


In 1818 Young became a corresponding member and in 1827 a foreign member of the Académie des Sciences . In 1822 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences . The lunar crater Young is named after him. The Young Medal is awarded in his honor . The name of the genus Youngia Cass. from the sunflower family (Asteraceae) honors Thomas Young and Edward Young .

See also


Mathematical elements of natural philosophy , 2002
  • A Course of Lectures on Natural Philosophy and the Mechanical Arts. 2 volumes. Johnson, London 1807, digitized volume 1 , digitized volume 2 .
  • Elementary Illustrations of the Celestial Mechanics of Laplace. Part the first, comprehending the first book. John Murray, London 1821, digitized .
  • An Account of some recent Discoveries in Hieroglyphical Literature, and Egyptian Antiquities. Including the Author's original Alphabet, as extended by Mr. Champollion, with a Translation of five unpublished Greek and Egyptian Manuscripts. John Murray, London 1823, digitized .
  • Rudiments of an Egyptian Dictionary in the ancient Enchorial Character; Containing all the words of which the sense has been ascertained. In: Henry Tattam : A compendious Grammar of the Egyptian Language as contained in the Coptic, Sahidic, and Bashmuric Dialects. Together with Alphabets and Numerals in the Hieroglyphic and Enchorial Characters and a few explanatory Observations. John and Arthur Arch, London 1830, separate count, digitized .
  • Miscellaneous Works of the Late Thomas Young. 3 volumes. John Murray, London 1855;


  • Daniel L. Kline: Thomas Young, forgotten genius. An annotated narrative biography . Vidan Press, Cincinnati, Ohio 1993. ISBN 0-9635046-0-6 .
  • George Peacock: Life of Thomas Young. John Murray, London 1855, digitized .
  • Andrew Robinson: The Last Man Who Knew Everything. Thomas Young, the Anonymous Polymath Who Proved Newton Wrong, Explained How We See, Cured the Sick, and Deciphered the Rosetta Stone, among other Feats of Genius. Pi Press, New York NY 2006, ISBN 0-13-134304-1 .
  • Frank Oldham: Thomas Young, natural philosopher . Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1954
  • Karl-Eugen Kurrer : The History of the Theory of Structures. Searching for Equilibrium , Ernst & Sohn 2018, p. 81ff, p. 234f and p. 1083 (biography), ISBN 978-3-433-03229-9 .

Web links

Commons : Thomas Young  - collection of images, videos and audio files
Wikisource: Thomas Young  - Sources and full texts

Single receipts

  1. ^ So Karl Heinrich Wiederkehr in Fritz Krafft (ed.): Great natural scientists. Biographical Lexicon. 2nd, revised and expanded edition. VDI-Verlag, Düsseldorf 1986, ISBN 3-18-400666-2 , p. 360 f.
  2. Thomas Young: The Bakerian Lecture: On the Theory of Light and Colors. In: Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London . Vol. 92, 1802, pp. 12-48, doi: 10.1098 / rstl.1802.0004 .
  3. Discovery of sound recording
  4. Harald Haarmann : The Indo-Europeans. Origin, languages, cultures (= Beck series 2706 CH Beck knowledge ). 2nd, revised edition. CH Beck, Munich 2012, ISBN 978-3-406-60682-3 , p. 9.
  5. ^ List of former members since 1666: Letter Y. Académie des sciences, accessed on March 16, 2020 (French).
  6. Lotte Burkhardt: Directory of eponymous plant names - Extended Edition. Part I and II. Botanic Garden and Botanical Museum Berlin , Freie Universität Berlin , Berlin 2018, ISBN 978-3-946292-26-5 doi: 10.3372 / epolist2018 .