Introduction

Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695) is generally regarded to have been one of the most famous and influential scientists of the 17th century. He made important discoveries in the sciences of mathematics, astronomy and physics. Present day physicists still speak of “Huygens’ principle” when explaining the propagation of light. Huygens is also known for his discovery of the rings and a moon of Saturn and for his work in mechanics, in particular on centrifugal force, pendulums, and the laws of percussion.

Whereas up to that time, notions of nature used to be rooted in a general philosophical framework, Huygens’ work is rather linked with his interest in technology and his efforts to make useful or pleasant inventions. Together with his older brother Constantijn Huygens (1628-1697) he made numerous telescope lenses which many considered to be unsurpassed by those of other telescope makers. He made or suggested many improvements to diverse devices, some of them scientific (e.g. a micrometer for his telescopes), others of a more playful nature, as coach suspensions and a laterna magica. His most famous invention, closely linked to his theoretical work, was the pendulum clock, which raised standards of accuracy to a considerable degree.

Huygens was famous already during his lifetime. When in 1666 Louis XIV founded the Royal French Academy of Sciences, Huygens became the principal member. In this way, for many years he was able to take a leading part in the scientific life of Europe. In his work, Huygens was one of the pioneers of the so called “scientific revolution”. Modern science was to a large degree established in the seventeenth century, and Huygens was one of the persons who brought this about.