London, South Kensington
23 April 2008
FOUCAULT, Jean Bernard Léon (1819-1868). Thèse présentée à la faculté des sciences de Paris... Sur les vitesses relatives de la lumière dans l'air et dans l'eau. Paris: Bachelier, 1853. 4° (280 x 210mm). Folding engraved plate (a little light discolouration). Original printed yellow wrappers, uncut, in a green quarter morocco folding box.
THE RARE FIRST EDITION of Foucault's doctoral thesis on the speed of light, in which he provides a convincing proof for the wave theory of light. In the 1840s Foucault undertook a series of optical experiments using an apparatus of rotating mirrors to determine the velocity of light. Originally developed by Charles Wheatstone to measure the velocity of electricity, the rotating mirror apparatus had been proposed as an instrument for the measurement of light in 1838 by Dominique-François Arago who failed in his own attempts to carry out the experiment. Foucault's initial work was caried out in conjunction with the physicist Armand Hippolyte Louis Fizeau (1819-1896); but a personal dispute broke up their partnership in 1847 and the two collaborators became rivals, working separately on the same problem using the same technique. Both reached the same conclusion, but while Fizeau was the first to obtain, in 1849, a precision measurement of the velocity of light, Foucault pre-empted him in announcing, on 30 April 1850, that light travels faster in air than in water, a decisive argument in favour of the wave theory of light, which by the mid-nineteenth century had become generally accepted. In his thesis Foucault gives a detailed account of his experiment, illustrating his apparatus; it was not until 1862 that he was able to determine a numerical value for the speed of light, of about 298,000 kilometers per second, a figure significantly smaller, and more accurate, than Fizeau's. Norman 820.
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