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To scrutinize the whole of Nature: The Royal Society and its fellows 1660-1730

Smith's Opticks

Huygens' aerial telescope, as depicted in: Robert Smith. A compleat system of opticks in four books: viz. a popular, a mathematical, a mechanical, and a philosophical treatise. To which are added remarks upon the whole. Cambridge: printed for the author, and sold there by Cornelius Crownfield, and at London by Stephen Austen, and Robert Dodsley, 1738 [Rare Books Collection QC353.Sm64]Huygens' aerial telescope, as depicted in: Robert Smith. A compleat system of opticks in four books: viz. a popular, a mathematical, a mechanical, and a philosophical treatise. To which are added remarks upon the whole. Cambridge: printed for the author, and sold there by Cornelius Crownfield, and at London by Stephen Austen, and Robert Dodsley, 1738 [Rare Books Collection QC353.Sm64]The mathematician, Robert Smith (1689-1768) succeeded his cousin Roger Cotes as Plumian Professor of Astronomy and Experimental Philosophy at Cambridge in 1716.

Smith’s most important work was A compleat system of opticks, in which he applied ideas of gravitational attraction from Principia to Newton’s corpuscular theory of light, presenting a system of optics which explained optical phenomena, such as reflection, refraction and inflection in terms of the attraction and repulsion of light corpuscles by matter.

Smith’s Opticks was well received both in Britain and Europe and was translated into Dutch (1753), German (1755) and French (1767), with a shortened version for students published in English in 1778. It became one of the most influential works on the subject in the eighteenth century and helped to reinforce the corpuscular theory as the dominant theory of light in Britain.

Part of the appeal of Smith’s treatment of optics was its comprehensiveness: it covered not only optical theory and experiments but also the history of the subject and the construction and use of optical instruments, such as Huygens' aerial telescope, shown here.

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