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Spectroscopy History
Compiled and Edited By Barlow Bob
The Sun in X-Ray (from ESA/NASA/SOHO)
The English philosopher Roger Bacon (1214 – 1294) was the first person to recognize that
sunlight passing through a glass of water could be split into colors.
Nearly four centuries later, Sir Isaac Newton coined the term “spectrum” to describe the
rainbow of colors produced by sending sunlight through a prism. In 1666, he directed a
beam of sunlight through a glass prism and noted the light from the Sun was composed
of a continuous spectrum of colors. Newton was not equipped to study the spectrum
and was unable to observe the spectrum in more detail. Later, using a telescope and
prism, Newton viewed the light from Venus. Again, he noted the light contained a
continuous spectrum. Newton’s work with spectral light was not broadly recognized, and
little additional work on the nature of spectra was done for 150 years.
However, two noteworthy spectral discoveries did take place during that period. In 1800,
William Herschel tested the heating power of the colors of the solar spectrum. He placed
sensitive thermometers at various locations in the spectrum. Herschel found that the
maximum heating effect took place outside the red end of the visible spectrum. He
discovered infrared (IR) light. The following year, J.W. Ritter was testing the effect of the
solar spectrum on various chemicals. His experiment involved a quartz prism placed in an
open window. Ritter placed paper that was coated with different chemicals in the
spectrum. He found that silver chloride blackened when placed at a point beyond the
violet end of the spectrum. Ritter discovered ultraviolet (UV) light.
William Hyde Wollaston (1766 – 1828) was an English chemist and physicist. In 1802, in
what was to later lead to some of the more important advances in solar physics, he
discovered the spectrum of sunlight is crossed by a number of dark lines. This is
considered to be “A Great Moment in the History of Solar Physics” since it was the birth of
Solar Spectroscopy.
In the early 19th century, Europe was in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars and military
needs were driving many technologies, as they have often done before and since. In
1801, the French military government in Bavaria was having a great deal of difficulty
making a survey of Napoleon’s new conquests because of the poor quality of the lenses
available for surveyor’s transits. Farsighted businessmen bought an abandoned
monastery, called Benediktbeuern, near Munich. There they set up a company to
improve the quality of glass. Glassmakers had to find ways of making sure that when they
melted a mixture of quartz, lime and soda in their furnaces, the materials really mixed
together uniformly. The inability to solve this problem caused windows in old buildings to
produce distorted, wavy images of outside objects. You can imagine what it did to a
telescope lens.
The smartest thing the company owners did was to hire a journeyman glassworker by the
name of Joseph von Fraunhofer. Orphaned as a young boy, Fraunhofer had been
apprenticed to a glass cutter. One day while working, the building he was in collapsed
around him trapping him inside and, apparently, turning him into something of a public
hero in Bavaria as rescue workers struggled to dig him out. The Elector of Bavaria gave
him 18 Ducats, which allowed Fraunhofer to buy out his apprentice’s contract and
acquire enough tools to set himself up in business. By 1813 he was in charge of the whole
operation at Benediktbeuern. Over the years, he improved the quality of the glass
produced by his factory, producing the best optical equipment to be found anywhere in
the world. This gave Fraunhofer a new problem. There was not a way that he could
measure small differences in the composition of his glass from one melt to another.
To see why this might be important, think about a simple optical instrument, such as a
prism. When white light comes into the prism, the different wavelengths are bent through
different angles, resulting in a spread of colors. Prisms made of slightly different pieces of
glass, however, will bend the same wavelength of light through slightly different angles.
What was needed was some sort of calibration standard, some fixed wavelength of light
that all laboratories could run through their prisms to compare the way the instruments
worked. Today, there are many such standards available. In Fraunhofer’s time, there was
He turned to a discovery that had been made in 1802. If you pass sunlight through a
prism of sufficiently high quality, you notice a series of dark bands superimposed at
regular intervals over the colored spectrum of light. No one at the time, including
Fraunhofer, had any idea what these lines were. He realized that whether he understood
them of not, they could be used to solve his calibration problem.
The same Sun shines on London and Berlin. Laboratories in these two cities carefully
measure the wavelengths of the dark bands. They could compare their prisms, by
looking at how much they each bent a specific wavelength. Like most high-tech
entrepreneurs, Fraunhofer was not slow to exploit his new idea. In 1814, he rediscovered
the dark lines in the solar spectrum noted by William Hyde Wollaston and determined
their position with improved precision. In the 1820’s, he had made careful measurements
of no fewer than 574 dark lines in the Sun’s spectrum He provided a detailed road map
for other investigators to follow. As far as we can tell, he never tried to find out what the
lines were or where they came from. For him, they were useful markers that made his
work as an equipment manufacturer easier. Today, we honor his careful benchmark
investigations by referring to dark lines of this type as “Fraunhofer lines.”
The solar spectrum and its Fraunhofer Lines. Click HERE for more info.
In 1849, Leon Foucault noticed that Fraunhofer’s D line in the Sun corresponded with the
bright yellow-orange line in lamps. To show that the two lines matched, he passed
sunlight through the arc of a lamp in order to view the superimposed spectra. To his
surprise, he found that the absorption lines in the solar spectrum became stronger.
Additional experiments using carbon arc lamps showed that a given medium could
produce either emission of absorption lines. The results of these and earlier experiments
were fundamental to the development of Kirchoff’s Laws.
For more than half a century, the Sun’s Frauenhofer lines remained a useful, but
unexplained phenomenon. By the late 1850’s, the University of Heidelberg had become
one of the great centers of scientific research in the world. Two of its brightest scientists
were a physicist named Gustav Kirchoff and a chemist named Robert Bunsen.
In 1859, they repeated Foucault’s experiment of passing sunlight through a strong sodium
flame. To aid their investigation, Bunsen and Kirchoff developed the first spectroscope.
Earlier scientists used a prism to diffract the light source to a separate viewing scope, and
detailed measurements were difficult to perform. The spectroscope that Bunsen and
Kirchoff developed had an integrated slit, prism, and collimator. The results of their
experiment were the same as Foucault’s: the sodium flame produced dark lines in the
solar spectrum. Kirchoff repeated the experiment with lithium, which had no
corresponding solar lines. When he performed the lithium test, he saw absorption lines.
How could two superimposed bright light sources produce dark lines? To answer this
question, Kirchoff and Bunsen recorded the spectra of lithium, sodium, potassium,
calcium, strontium, and barium salts in flames. The showed that the solar absorption
spectra were the reverse of the spectra that the solar atmosphere produced. Kirchoff
showed strong evidence for the presence of iron, magnesium, sodium, nickel, and
chromium in the atmosphere of the Sun.
In conducting these experiments, Kirchoff and Bunsen discovered two new elements:
cesium and rubidium. Kirchoff and Bunsen’s use of spectral analysis to determine
chemistry is considered to be the beginning of the science of spectroscopy.
Bunsen invented to burner found in practically every high school chemistry lab. He was
an expert in what is called analytical chemistry. This is the branch of science devoted to
purifying and identifying samples of chemical compounds. He began doing detailed
chemical analyses of the gases produced in the manufacturer of cast iron. By the 1850’s,
he was at Heidelberg working on techniques for identifying gases by looking at the color
of the flames they produce when burned. The Bunsen burner was developed so that
metal samples could be burned in a hot, non luminous flame.
Meanwhile, Gustav Kirchhoff was beginning a parallel career through the German
university system. In 1847, he graduated from the University of Königsberg. At the age of
21, he formulated the laws that govern the voltages and currents in electrical circuits,
laws which still bear his name. In 1854, he went to Heidelberg. In talks with Bunsen, he
suggested that instead of just looking at the colors of the flames, they should look at the
spectrum of light being emitted. It had been known for some time that the light from
burning materials, when passed through a prism, splits up into a series of sharp lines
called spectral lines, rather than a continuum, as happens with sunlight. What Kirchhoff
suggested was that those bright lines would make a good “tag” by which to detect fine
distinctions between different compounds.
The two took this idea seriously and put together the world’s first instrument for analyzing
spectra from a couple of old telescopes, a prism, and a cigar box. The idea was to look
at light from burning materials in a systematic way, cataloging the positions of various
spectral lines.
During the run-up to the main experiments in the autumn of 1859, however, Kirchhoff
stumbled on an observation that was to change the face of astronomy. He was running
sunlight through their apparatus, looking at Fraunhofer lines. He had already detected a
correspondence between the bright lines in the light from burning metals and the dark
Fraunhofer lines. What he noticed, however, is that if he passed sunlight through a
sodium flame before bringing it into his apparatus, certain Fraunhofer lines became
After thinking about this finding overnight, Kirchhoff realized that the dark lines occurred
when light was absorbed by atoms. Fraunhofer lines were created when white light from
the Sun’s core was absorbed by the sodium atoms in the solar atmosphere. Even more
light was absorbed by Kirchhoff’s flame. This is why the lines became darker. This not
only explained a fundamental property of radiation, it opened a new window on the
universe. For the first time in history, a human being had detected the presence of a
specific chemical element (sodium) on a non-terrestrial body.
In 1861 Bunsen and Kirchhoff performed experiments leading to the conclusion that the
dark lines in the solar spectrum, observed by Wollaston and Fraunhofer, arise due to the
absorption of light by gases in the solar atmosphere that are cooler than those emitting
the light.
Today we know that the atom has a heavy, positively-charged nucleus around which
electrons move in specified orbits. When an electron jumps from a higher orbit to a lower
one, light is emitted. The energy of the light moving away from the atom is precisely
equal to the difference in energy of the electron in the two orbits. When an atom
absorbs light, on the other hand, the electron jumps from a lower orbit to a higher orbit,
and the energy absorbed from the light is precisely equal to the energy needed to lift
the electron up.
Kirchhoff didn’t know about electrons, of course. Their discovery was decades in his
future. From his experiments, he realized that an atom that emits a particular
wavelength of light will also absorb at that wavelength. Why absorption? Where the
original photon may have been coming straight along your line of sight, the one that’s
re-emitted can head off in any direction. The result is a drop in intensity for the light given
off by that element, which shows up as the absorption line.
Armed with their new insight, Kirchhoff and Bunsen displayed the “killer instinct” you
would expect from world-class researchers by identifying two new chemical elements:
Cesium (from the Latin for “sky blue”) and rubidium (“dark red”) from drops of mineral
water. The elements were named for the brightest colors in the spectrum. In the
following years many additional elements were identified by their unique spectra.
While chemists were using the newfound ability to analyze spectra to flesh out the
Periodic Table, young astronomers were not slow in applying the analysis of spectra to
the study of the heavens.
Bright and sunny, with a noontime high of 4000 degrees.
A sunspot next to Earth (for comparison only).
One amateur astronomer in England, Norman Lockyer, acquired a small spectroscope to
fit in his six inch backyard telescope and used it to make a series of stunning discoveries
about the Sun. Examining light from sunspots, he noted that the Fraunhofer lines were
darker than those from neighboring areas, demonstrating that sunspots are cooler than
their surroundings. He used the spectroscope to make the first observation of a solar
prominence in the absence of an eclipse. He discovered and named the solar
chromosphere, because of the bright red hydrogen spectral line that created the
image. For these discoveries, Lockyer, who was a professional science writer and clerk in
the War Office, was elected to the Royal Society.
In 1868, he made a rather starling discovery. In the spectrum of the Sun, nestled between
two bright yellow sodium lines, he saw a spectral line that just was not supposed to be
there. At least, it didn’t belong to any element known to chemists. Lockyer concluded
that what he observed was a new element, one that didn’t appear on Earth. He named
the element helium, from Helios, the Greek word for Sun.
Today, the use of spectra to analyze the chemical composition of celestial objects is so
widespread that a spectrometer is as common as a telescope in an astronomer’s studies.
The introduction of spectroscopy by Kirchhoff and Bunsen marked the transition from
astronomy to astrophysics, between worrying about where objects are in the sky to
worrying about what they are.
Sir William Huggins was one of the wealthy British “amateurs” who contributed so much to
19th century science. At age 30 he sold the family business and built a private observatory
outside of London. He carried our extensive observations of the spectral emission lines
and absorption lines of various celestial objects. He took chemicals and batteries into
the observatory to compare laboratory spectra with those of stars. First visually and then
photographically, he explored the spectra of stars, nebulae and comets.
He was the first to distinguish between nebulas and galaxies by showing that some like
the Orion Nebula had pure emission spectra characteristic of gases, while others like the
Andromeda Galaxy had spectra characteristic of stars. Huggins was assisted in the
analysis of spectra by his neighbor, the chemist William Allen Miller. He discovered darkline spectra in 1863 and in 1864 he examined the spectrum of a planetary nebula, NGC
6543 in Draco, and found that it had a bright emission line spectrum. He therefore
concluded that this nebula was not composed of stars, which have a continuous
spectrum, but of glowing gas. In 1866, he made the first spectroscopic observation of a
nova, Nova Coronae 1866, and found emission lines of Hydrogen. In 1868 he took the
spectrum of a comet and identified the spectral lines of ethylene in this spectrum. After
1875 his observations were made jointly with his talented wife, the former Margaret
Lindsay Murray, who was a capable astronomer in her own right. She encouraged her
husband’s photography and helped to systemize their research.
In America, the driving force behind the gathering backlog of astronomical data was
largely the legacy of one man; a wealthy physician and amateur astronomer named
Henry Draper. In 1872, he was the first to photograph a stellar spectra spectrum,
introducing the world to an incredibly powerful tool for probing he physical properties of
Since astronomers didn’t employ uniform observing techniques during the late 1800’s,
they could not simply pool their accumulating data. However, the Henry Draper
Memorial changed all of that. Here, for the first time with the Henry Draper (HD) Catalog,
data was consistently gathered on uniform manufactured and developed photographic
plates. A single plate could capture 200 spectra for later analysis. This was a year’s work
to the previous generation of astronomers. Multiply hundreds of spectra per plate by an
endless flow of plates, and you get a feel for the magnitude of the Draper Catalog
project as it began in 1886.
Henry Draper, photographic plates, and zoom lens.
The first step in the data organization was to determine the stellar coordinates for
assigning HD numbers to the objects. These designations are used to this day. Then
came the overwhelming task of identifying spectral features on one-half-inch-long
smears of light and dark strips. The placement and intensity of the dark strips needed to
be determined precisely to properly classify a particular star.
When all was said and done by the middle of the 20 th century, Henry Draper’s namesake
catalog would contain positions and spectral information for nearly a quarter of a million
Visit any modern observatory, and along with telescopes you will find many computers.
No matter what astronomers study, they need computers to help them examine the
huge amounts of information that telescopes gather. More than 100 years have passed
since “computers” began working at observatories. However, at the beginning of this
100 years the computers were not machines at all, they were women. Like the rest of
America, astronomy was changing. Photography invented in 1839 was successfully
applied to astronomy in 1850. Once astronomers started taking photographs, the
amount of information they had to work with increased. Astronomers could no longer
work efficiently alone. They needed assistants to handle and study the photographs,
produced on rectangular glass plates.
An early network. The Harvard computers from 1917. Ida E. Woods, Evelyn F. Leland,
Florence Cushman, Grace R. Brooks, Mary H. Vann, Henrietta S. Leavitt, Mollie E. O'Reilly,
Mabel A. Gill, Alta M. Carpenter, Annie J. Cannon, Dorothy W. Block, Arville D. Walker
Toward the end of the 1800’s, American observatories began to resemble factories, with
different workers producing, handling, and studying astronomical photographs. In the
1880’s, Harvard College Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts began hiring women
to do daytime work with photographs. Women observatory workers were called
“computers” because their work often involved measuring and computing star positions.
They also compared similar photographs to find stars that vary in brightness over time.
Some women studied photographs of star spectra, produced when a prism is attached
to the telescope. In these photographs, each star is a smear of light containing lines that,
like fingerprints, reveal a star’s unique characteristics. The Harvard “computers” worked
with the spectra gathered with an eight-inch Bache refractor.
Draper’s ultimate goal was to photograph stellar spectra across the northern and
southern hemispheres. He was convinced that in spectra lay the answers to fundamental
questions about the universe. Unfortunately, Draper would never achieve his ultimate
goal. He died suddenly in 1882. His shocked and grieving widow, Anna Palmer Draper,
was determined that her husband’s dream be realized.
Meanwhile, at Harvard College Observatory (HCO) in Cambridge, MA, a gathering of
money, memorial and motivation was poised to reshape astronomy forever.
Observatory director Edward C. Pickering shared much in common with Draper,
including a dream to construct an all-sky spectral catalog. Pickering was frustrated by
the slow progress that his young male assistant was making on the analysis of
photographic plates. In fact, legend has it that in 1880, Pickering became so fed up with
his assistant that he claimed that his maid could do a better job. It turns out that
Pickering was right.
Fortunately for Pickering, his maid was Williamina Fleming. Fleming had no formal
science education. As she had just been abandoned by her husband and was raising
her infant son alone, she needed to be gainfully employed. Going out on a limb,
Pickering hired her as a full-time member of the observatory staff in 1881. Fleming soon
found herself knee deep in astronomical data and tackled her newly assigned duties
with zeal. She studied photographs of stellar spectra and discovered that a certain type
of spectra indicated long-period variable stars. She also discovered ten novae by
studying stellar spectra.
Finally in 1886, under the financial support of the newly-founded Henry Draper Memorial
Fund managed by Anna Draper and the leadership of Pickering, Henry Draper’s dream
project commenced at HCO. Pickering, a proponent of women’s rights, soon found
himself in desperate need of data analyzers. At the time, women were thought to be
naturally suited to repetitive tasks like calculating, tabulating, measuring, and scrutinizing.
They were also paid less than half the cost of their male counterparts.
After 1886, the workrooms at the observatory never held fewer than a dozen
“computers.” For more than thirty years, 45 women were employed at HCO. The
women computers of HCO were expected to work six days a week, seven hours a day.
Fleming later said in her journal that Pickering’s seven-hour day went from 9 A.M. to 6
P.M. The starting wage was 25 cents an hour. For these women, the opportunity to be
involved with the science they loved was far more important than salary considerations.
The original appeal of stellar spectra lay in their mystery. The first observations of stellar
spectra in the early 1800’s hinted to astronomers that there was something significant
about the pattern and intensities of the dark lines that chopped the rainbow into slivers,
yet they simply did not know the origin of that significance.
Fleming soon found herself in 1881 supervising a platoon of assistants. After four years of
tireless, tedious scrutiny, Fleming and her team had managed to classify 10,498 stars with
a scheme that the astronomical community coined the “Pickering-Fleming system.” This
label indicated the first general recognition of a female astronomer. This system
consisted of 15 spectral classes, each of which had specific identifying features such as
the strength of the dark lines corresponding to hydrogen. The classes were given simple
letter designations, A through Q (I, J, and P were omitted; all oddities were lumped into
Fleming’s work with spectra was so marvelous that Pickering later trusted her with virtually
every aspect of the astronomical work at the observatory. She would ultimately become
the first woman to earn an official Harvard “corporate” appointment.
accomplishments paved the way for subsequent achievements by her colleagues and
One of Fleming’s successors was Annie Jump Cannon. She was one of the few
computers who had training in physics and astronomy, having graduated from Wellesley
in 1884. A decade later, after returning home to Delaware, the partially deaf Cannon
realized that her heart lay in the stars. She became one of Pickering’s assistants in 1896.
The study of improved spectra was assigned in 1888 to Draper’s niece Antonia C. Maury.
By noting that some spectra showed double sets of lines, she discovered a spectroscopic
binary. These are stars that appear single but are actually two stars orbiting each other.
She was the first person to realize that the sharpness of spectral lines tells important
information about a star. Maury eventually left HCO after disagreements with Pickering.
Cannon took over Maury’s work. Cannon’s classification scheme retained Fleming’s
original letter designation, but followed the overall sequence of Maury’s. By using
Maury’s sequence, Cannon saw the need to categorize stars according to some
unknown physical property. Cannon created the familiar O, B, A, F, G, K, M, seven major
classes, each with ten subclasses: 0 through 9. These subclasses are based on the
presence, absence, or intensity of particular spectral features. O stars are hot stars and
M stars are relatively cool. The Sun is a G2 star. The spectral class immediately provides
information about a star’s physical properties, including temperature. She classified the
spectra of more than 350,000 stars during her years at Harvard, while her work in many
other areas continued until her death in 1941.
Henrietta Swan Leavitt had a college degree and began working at Harvard in 1895.
Leavitt’s forte was photographic photometry. Photometry is the determination of the
absolute brightness of the stars from photographic plates. She could get an accurate
photometric magnitude scale with the aide of photography and also perform night-tonight comparisons of stars to locate new variable stars. She studied photographs of
variable stars and discovered that the periods of variable stars called Cepheids are
related to their actual luminosity, or brightness. This period-luminosity relationship helps
astronomers measure distances in the universe. A star’s distance can be calculated by
comparing its actual brightness to its apparent brightness. She also discovered over 2,400
variable stars this way. At the time, this was about half of the variables known to exist.
Cepheid variable in M100 from the Hubble Space Telescope.
Using photographs of nebulae, Edwin Hubble found Cepheid variable stars. These are
yellow supergiant pulsating stars that are very important in establishing distances to
groups of stars beyond our own Milky Way galaxy. He analyzed the light of Cepheid stars
in three nebulae. Hubble was able to determine the distance to these galaxies in the
1920’s using Henrietta Leavitt’s period-luminosity relationship. His results showed that the
farther away a galaxy is from us, the faster it is moving away from us. This shocking
evidence that the universe is expanding changed the centuries-old opinion that the
universe was static.
From 1859 until his death at age 73, Johann Jakob Balmer (1825-1898) was a high school
teacher at a girl’s school in Basel, Switzerland. His primary academic interest was
geometry, but in the middle 1880’s he became fascinated with four numbers: 6,562.10,
4,860.74, 4,340.1, and 4,101.2. These are not pretty numbers, but for the mathematician
Balmer, they became an intriguing puzzle. Was there a pattern to the four numbers that
could be represented mathematically? The four numbers Balmer chose were special
because these numbers pertained to the spectra of the hydrogen atom. By the time
Balmer became interested in the problem, the spectra of many chemical elements had
been studied and it was clear that each element gave rise to a unique set of spectral
lines. Balmer was a devoted Pythagorean: he believed that simple numbers lay behind
the mysteries of the universe. His interest was not directed toward spectra, which he
knew little about, nor was it directed toward the discovery of some hidden physical
mechanism inside the atom that would explain the observed spectra. Balmer was
intrigued by the numbers themselves.
In the mid-1880’s, Balmer began his examination of the four numbers associated with the
hydrogen spectrum. At his disposal were the four numbers measured by Anders Jonas
Angström (1814-1874): 6,562.10, 4,860.74, 4,340.1, and 4,101.2. These numbers
represented the wavelengths, in units of Angströms, of the four visible spectral lines in the
hydrogen atom spectrum.
The Balmer Series for hydrogen.
In 1885 Balmer published a paper in which his successful formulation was communicated
to the scientific world. Balmer showed that the four wavelengths could be obtained with
the formula that bears his name (wavelength = B x (m^2)/(m^2-n^2), with B = 3645.6
Angströms). He had found a simple mathematical formula that expressed a law by which
the hydrogen wavelengths could be represented with striking precision. He further
suggested that there might be additional lines in the hydrogen spectrum. Other spectral
lines with their own wavelengths were predicted by Balmer and later found by other
scientists. Angström measured the wavelengths of the spectral lines of hydrogen, but
Balmer showed that the wavelengths of the spectral lines are not arbitrary. The value of
the wavelengths are the expression of one particular mathematical formula and this
Balmer Series equation altered how scientists thought about spectral lines. Before Balmer
published his results, scientists drew an analogy between spectral lines and musical
harmonies. They assumed that there were simple harmonic ratios between the
frequencies of spectral lines. After Balmer’s work, all scientists recognized that spectral
wavelengths could be represented by simple numerical relationships.
Balmer disappeared from the ranks of working scientists and continued his classroom
work teaching young ladies mathematics. Neither he nor his students recognized that his
paper on the spectrum of hydrogen would bring him scientific immortality. The spectral
lines of hydrogen that were the focus of Balmer’s attention are now known as the Balmer
For More Information:
Practical Amateur Spectroscopy
ISBN 1-85233-489-4
Spectroscopy: The Key to the Stars
Keith Robinson
ISBN-13:978-0 387-36786-6
Spectroscopic Timeline
Roger Bacon (1214 – 1294) recognizes that sunlight passing through a glass of water
could be split into colors.
1666 - Isaac Newton discovers that white light is composed of colored light.
1749 - Thomas Melville studies the spectra of flames and notices the yellow line of sodium
in salt.
1800 - William Herschel discovers infrared light.
1801 - Thomas Young uses diffraction to show wave properties of light.
1801 - J.W. Ritter and William Wollaston discover ultraviolet light.
1802 - William Wollaston discovers the solar absorption lines.
1814 - Joseph von Fraunhofer observes the solar spectral lines using an early version of
the spectroscope.
1821 - Joseph von Fraunhofer builds the first diffraction grating, composed of 260 close
parallel wires.
1823 - Joseph von Fraunhofer observes the spectra of the Moon, Mars, Venus, and
several bright stars.
1823 - John Herschel suggests identification of chemical composition from spectra.
1826 - William Henry Fox Talbot introduces the idea of chemical spectral analysis.
1827 - David Brewster produces absorption spectra in a laboratory.
1827 - Joseph Nicephore Niepce produces the first successful photograph.
1832 - John Herschel notes that different flames produce different spectra.
1840 - Auguste Compte suggests that the nature and composition of stars will never be
1842 - Christian Doppler develops his theory of the Doppler Effect for light and sound.
1842 - Edmond Becquerel produces the first photographic record showing the Fraunhofer
lines in the solar spectra.
1843 - Edmond Becquerel discovers absorption lines in ultraviolet light using photographic
1847 - J.W. Draper suggests the relationship between the temperature and color of light.
1848 - William Simms constructs a spectroscope with a collimator.
1849 - Foucault that a given medium could produce absorption or emission lines.1849 The Astronomical Journal was founded.
1853 - Anders Angström measures the hydrogen spectral lines.
1855 - Robert Bunsen and Peter Desaga invent a high-temperature low-luminosity burner
to use in spectral analysis.
1857 - Joseph Swan demonstrates that a minute amount of a chemical can produce
spectral lines.
1858 - Balfour Stewart shows that at a given temperature, substances that emit a lot of
energy also absorb a lot of energy.
1859 - Gustav Kirchhoff shows the presence of sodium in the solar atmosphere.
1860 - Gustav Kirchhoff and Robert Bunsen develop the Bunsen-Kirchhoff spectroscope
that uses both a slit and a collimator. This is the first spectroscope.
1860 - James Clerk Maxwell develops his theory of electro-magnetic radiation.
1860 - Gustav Kirchhoff develops his spectral laws and the black body problem.
1860-1 - Robert Bunsen discovers the elements Cesium and Rubidium using the technique
of spectral analysis.
1861 - Gustav Kirchhoff and Robert Bunsen systematically show that the solar spectrum is
due to absorption in the Sun’s atmosphere.
1862 - Gustav Kirchhoff maps the solar spectrum with elements identified.
1862 - Anders Angström observes hydrogen in the spectra of the Sun.
1864 - Giovanni Battista Donati examines the spectrum of a comet noticing broad line of
an unknown glowing gas.
1864 - William Huggins observes the spectrum of a planetary nebula, determining it is
made of gas.
1866 - William Huggins makes the first spectroscopic study of a nova.
1868 - Pierre-Jules Janssen observes the lines of helium in the Sun.
1868 - William Huggins examines the spectra of seventy different nebulae.
1868 - Angelo Secchi describes four types of stellar spectra.
1868 - Norman Lockyer and William Crookes recognize and name the element helium.
1868 - Anders Angström publishes a compilation of all the visible lines in the solar spectra.
1868 - William Huggins observes the Doppler shift in stellar spectra.
1870 - C.A. Young discovers a reversing layer near the surface of the Sun showing the
bright lines of the Fraunhofer spectra.
1872 - Henry Draper photographs the spectrum of Vega.
1879 - William Huggins photographs the ultraviolet spectra of several stars.
1885 - J.J. Balmer finds a formula for the hydrogen line series. J.R. Rydberg and W. Ritz
find the formula of other simple spectra.
1895 - William Ramsey isolates the element helium in a laboratory.
1913 - Niels Bohr develops his theory of the atom which explains the Balmer, Rydberg and
Ritz formulas for simple spectra.
1936 - Thanheiser and Heyes use photocells to measure light intensities.
1954 - Alan Walsh invents the atomic absorption spectrometer.
1969 - George Carruthers patents his invention, an Image Converter for Detecting
Electromagnetic Radiation at especially in Short Wavelengths.