Biography of Christiaan Huygens

Scientist, innovator, and inventor of the pendulum clock

Portrait of Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695)
Portrait of Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695). Bernard Vaillant, Huygensmuseum Hofwijck, Voorburg

Christiaan Huygens (April 14, 1629 – July 8, 1695), a Dutch natural scientist, was one of the great figures of the scientific revolution. While his best-known invention is the pendulum clock, Huygens is remembered for a wide range of inventions and discoveries in the fields of physics, mathematics, astronomy, and horology. In addition to creating the influential timekeeping device, Huygens discovered the shape of Saturn's rings, the moon Titan, the wave theory of light, and the formula for centripetal force

The Life of Christiaan Huygens

Huygens was born and died in The Hague, Netherlands.
Huygens was born and died in The Hague, Netherlands. mihaiulia / Getty Images

Christiaan Huygens was born on April 14, 1629 in The Hague, Netherlands, to Constantijn Huygens and Suzanna van Baerle. His father was a wealthy diplomat, poet, and musician. Constantijn educated Christiaan at home until he was sixteen years old. Christiaan's liberal education included math, geography, logic, and languages, as well as music, horse riding, fencing, and dancing.

Huygens entered the University of Leiden in 1645 to study law and mathematics. In 1647, he entered Orange College in Breda, where his father served as curator. Following completion of his studies in 1649, Huygens embarked on a career as a diplomat with Henry, Duke of Nassau. However, the political climate changed, removing the influence of Huygens' father. In 1654, Huygens returned to The Hague to pursue a scholarly life.

Huygens moved to Paris in 1666, where he became a founding member of the French Academy of Sciences. During his time in Paris, he met German philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and published Horologium Oscillatorium. This work included the derivation of the formula for the oscillation of a pendulum, a theory on the mathematics of curves, and the law of centrifugal force.

Huygens returned to The Hague in 1681, where he later died at the age of 66.

Huygens the Horologist

A clock pendulum model based on the design of the first pendulum clock invented by Christiaan Huygens in 1657.
A clock pendulum model based on the design of the first pendulum clock invented by Christiaan Huygens in 1657. Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago / Getty Images

In 1656, Huygens invented the pendulum clock based on Galileo's earlier research into pendulums. The clock became the world's the most accurate timepiece and remained so for the next 275 years.

Nonetheless, there were problems with the invention. Huygens had invented the pendulum clock to be used as a marine chronometer, but the rocking motion of a ship prevented the pendulum from functioning properly. As a result, the device wasn't popular. While Huygens successfully filed a patent for his invention in The Hague, he wasn't granted rights in France or England.

Huygens also invented a balance spring watch, independently of Robert Hooke. Huygens patented a pocket watch in 1675.

Huygens the Natural Philosopher

We now know light has properties of both particles and waves. Huygens was the first to propose the wave theory of light.
We now know light has properties of both particles and waves. Huygens was the first to propose the wave theory of light. shulz / Getty Images

Huygens made many contributions to the fields of mathematics and physics (called "natural philosophy" at the time). He formulated laws to describe the elastic collision between two bodies, wrote a quadratic equation for what would become Newton's second law of motion, wrote the first treatise about probability theory, and derived the formula for centripetal force.

However, he is best remembered for his work in optics. He may have been the inventor of the magic lantern, an early type of image projector. He experimented with birefringence (double diffraction), which he explained with a wave theory of light. Huygens' wave theory was published in 1690 in Traité de la lumière. The wave theory was in opposition to Newton's corpuscular theory of light. Huygens' theory was not proven until 1801, when Thomas Young conducted interference experiments.

The Nature of Saturn's Rings and the Discovery of Titan

Huygens invented better telescopes, enabling him to discern the shape of Saturn's rings and discover its moon, Titan.
Huygens invented better telescopes, enabling him to discern the shape of Saturn's rings and discover its moon, Titan. Johannes Gerhardus Swanepoel / Getty Images

In 1654, Huygens turned his attention from mathematics to optics. Working alongside his brother, Huygens devised a better method for grinding and polishing lenses. He described the law of refraction, which he used to calculate the focal distance of the lenses and build improved lenses and telescopes.

In 1655, Huygens pointed one of his new telescopes at Saturn. What had once appeared to be vague bulges on the sides of the planet (as seen through inferior telescopes) were revealed to be rings. Plus, Huygens could see that the planet had a large moon, which was named Titan.

Other Contributions

Huygens believed life might exist on other planets, providing water was present.
Huygens believed life might exist on other planets, providing water was present. 3alexd

In addition to Huygens' most famous discoveries, he is credited with several other notable contributions:

  • Huygens innovated a 31 equal temperament musical scale, which is related to Francisco de Salinas' meantone scale.
  • In 1680, Huygens designed an internal combustion engine that used gunpowder as its fuel. He never built it.
  • Huygens completed Cosmotheoros shortly before his death (published posthumously). In addition to discussing the possibility of life on other planets, he proposed that a key criteria for finding extraterrestrial life would be the existence of water. He also proposed a method for estimating distances between stars.

Biography Fast Facts

Full Name: Christiaan Huygens

Also Known As: Christian Huyghens

Occupation: Dutch astronomer, physicist, mathematician, horologist

Date of Birth: April 14, 1629

Place of Birth: The Hague, Dutch Republic

Date of Death: July 8, 1695 (age 66)

Place of Death: The Hague, Dutch Republic

Education: University of Leiden; University of Angers

Selected Published Works:

Key Accomplishments:

  • Invented the pendulum clock.
  • Discovered the moon Titan.
  • Discovered the shape of Saturn's rings.
  • Formulated the equations for centripetal force, elastic collisions, and diffraction.
  • Proposed the wave theory of light.
  • Invented the Huygenian eyepiece for telescopes.

Spouse: Never Married

Children: No Children

Fun Fact: Huygens tended to publish long after making his discoveries. He wanted to make certain his work was correct before submitting it to his peers.

Did You Know? Huygens believed life might be possible on other planets. In Cosmotheoros, he wrote that the key to extraterrestrial life was the presence of water on other planets.

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Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "Biography of Christiaan Huygens." ThoughtCo, Apr. 25, 2018, thoughtco.com/christiaan-huygens-biography-4163997. Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. (2018, April 25). Biography of Christiaan Huygens. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/christiaan-huygens-biography-4163997 Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "Biography of Christiaan Huygens." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/christiaan-huygens-biography-4163997 (accessed May 24, 2018).