Hermann von Helmholtz and his Theory of Vision

Hermann von Helmholtz

Hermann von Helmholtz

On August 31, 1821German physician and physicist Hermann von Helmholtz was born. In physiology and psychology, he is known for his mathematics of the eye, theories of vision, ideas on the visual perception of space, color vision research, and on the sensation of tone, perception of sound, and empiricism. In physics, he is known for his theories on the conservation of energy, work in electrodynamics, chemical thermodynamics, and on a mechanical foundation of thermodynamics.

Hermann von Helmholtz grew up in Potsdam, Germany and attended the local Gymnasium, where his father was a teacher in philology and classical literature. Hermann was mostly interested in physics and wanted to also study the subjects at the university. Unfortunately, his family’s financial background did not allow him to pursue the plan and his father managed to persuade him to study medicine as this was supported by the government. Hermann von Helmholtz continued his education at the Royal Friedrich-Wilhelm Institute of Medicine and Surgery in Berlin and in order to be financially supported, Helmholtz had to promise to work for ten years as a doctor in the Prussian army after graduating. Next to his medical studies in Berlin, Hermann von Helmholtz also took the opportunity to attend classes in chemistry and physiology at the local University and studied mathematics at home. In this period, he was significantly influenced by the works of Laplace, Biot and Daniel Bernoulli as well as Kant.

After graduating, Helmholtz was assigned to a military regiment at Potsdam where he continued his research in the field of physics and medicine. For instance, Helmholtz demonstrated that in situations were energy appears to be lost it is often converted into heat energy. This can be applied to muscle contraction as well as in collisions or expanding gases. His works on the topic were regarded as highly important and he was released from his obligation as an army doctor in order to work at the chair of physiology at Königsberg. There, Hermann von Helmholtz published his important work on physiological optics and physiological acoustics.

Through his research at Königsberg, Helmholtz received a great international reputation.and revolutionized the field of ophthalmology especially with the invention of the ophthalmoscope. The medical instrument is used to examine the inside of the human eye and made Helmholtz famous basically over night. Back then, he was mostly interested in the physiology of the senses and his main publication in the field was ‘Handbuch der Physiologischen Optik’ (Handbook of Physiological Optics or Treatise on Physiological Optics) in which the scientist provided detailed empirical theories on depth perception, color vision, and motion perception. The work became the fundamental reference work in his field during the second half of the nineteenth century.In the third volume, published in 1867, Helmholtz described the importance of unconscious inferences for perception. It was also translated into English on behalf of the Optical Society of America. However, in 1852, he published a paper on color vision and the experiments Helmholtz performed back then led him to reject Newton’s theory of color. In later years he published new experimental results showing those of his 1852 paper to be incorrect. Unfortunately, Hermann von Helmholtz’ wife did not do well in Königsberg as she had several health issues and after requesting a move, he was appointed to chair of anatomy and physiology in Bonn around 1855. He continued to publish in the field of physiological optics and physics. Further research topics in Hermann von Helmholtz’s career include electromagnetism, acoustics and aesthetics, nerve physiology and sensory physiology.

Hermann von Helmholtz was conferred with Honorary Membership of the Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders in Scotland in 1884 and one of the largest German associations of research institutions, the Helmholtz Association, is named after him.

At yovisto, you may be interested in a video lecture by Professor Ayliffe on ‘Color Vision‘ at Gresham College.

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