Helmholtz on Thomas Young

Thomas Young died in May 1829 when Hermann von Helmholtz was seven years old. Twenty-three years later, in 1852, Helmholtz wrote about Young's achievements:


The theory of colours, with all these marvellous and complicated relations, was a riddle which Goethe in vain attempted to solve; nor were we physicists and physiologists and more successful. I include myself among the number; for I long toiled at the task, without getting any nearer my object, until I at last discovered that a wonderfully simple solution had been discovered at the beginning of this [nineteenth] century, and had been in print for any one to read who chose. This solution was found and published by the same Thomas Young who first showed the right method of arriving at the interpretations of Egyptian hieroglyphics. He was one of the most acute men who ever lived, but had the misfortune to be too far in advance of his contemporaries. They looked on him with astonishment, but could not follow his bold speculations, and thus a mass of his most important thoughts remained buried and forgotten in the 'Transactions of the Royal Society' until a later generation by slow degrees arrived at the rediscovery of his discoveries, and came to appreciate the force of his arguments and the accuracy of his conclusions.

JOC/EFR August 2016

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