Herschel Infrared Experiment
In the year 1800, Sir William Herschel discovered the existence of infrared
by performing an experiment very similar to the one we show here.
Herschel passed sunlight through a prism. As sunlight passes through the prism,
the prism divides it into a rainbow of colors called a spectrum.
A spectrum contains all of the colors which make up sunlight.
Herschel was interested in measuring the amount of heat in each color.
To do this he used thermometers with blackened bulbs and measured the
temperature of the different colors of the spectrum. He noticed that the
temperature increased from the blue to the red part of the spectrum.
Then he placed a thermometer just past the red part of the spectrum in
a region where there was no visible light and found that the temperature
there was even higher. Herschel realized that there must be another type
of light which we cannot see in this region. This light was called infrared.
It is very easy to recreate this experiment. All you need is an equilateral
glass prism, 3 alcohol thermometers, scotch tape, a white piece of paper
and a south facing window sill or a box. The cost of the prism we used was
about $7.50 and the thermometers were 75 cents a piece.
You will need to blacken the bulbs of the thermometers to make this experiment
work. To do this we masked the thermometers with masking tape
exposing only the bulbs and then spray painted the bulbs with a flat black
paint. The bulbs of the thermometers were blackened to better absorb heat.
In the above image you can see how to set up this experiment for use
outdoors. We placed a white piece of paper at the bottom of a cardboard
xerox paper box. Next we rotated the prism until a good wide spectrum
appeared on the white paper at the bottom of the box and then taped the prism into place.
To get a good spectrum we had to tilt the box up on the prism end by
placing a rock under it.
First check the temperature of the thermometers away from the spectrum in the
shaded area of the box. The above image shows the temperature before the
thermometers are placed in the spectrum. All 3 read 76 degrees which is the
outdoor shade temperature.
Now let's place the thermometers in the spectrum.
We will place the left bulb in the blue part of the spectrum, the middle bulb in
the yellow part of the spectrum, and the right bulb just past the red
part of the spectrum in a region where there is no visible light.
The above image shows the temperature readings after about 1 minute.
It takes a few minutes for the temperatures to reach their final value.
Within 1 minute you can already see a difference in temperature.
The thermometer in the blue part of the spectrum shows the lowest reading
which is not much higher than shade temperature.
The yellow part of the spectrum is showing a much higher temperature than
The thermometer on the right, which is in the dark region just past the
red, is showing the highest temperature of all 3 regions. (The sun had
moved slightly by the time this picture was taken, and hence the right-most
bulb just started to have a small portion of the red spectrum shining on it
The differences between the 3 temperature readings continue to grow
larger until the final temperatures are reached (shown above).
You can now see that the dark area shows a much higher temperature
than the areas which are in regions of light. Final readings
Final readings are:
blue: 80 degrees yellow: 83 degrees infrared: 86 degrees
1. The differences between the temperatures of the colors of the spectrum
vary with the width of the spectrum, which depends on time of day, and the
distance from the prism, which is proportional to the height of your box.
In all cases the trend of temperature increasing from blue to infrared
should still show up.
2. All the wavelengths farther than the infrared are compressed to a small
region just beyond the red (see Reconciling
The Herschel Experiment). For typical box depths of 0.3 m, no solar
wavelengths are beyond 0.4 cm from the end of the red, so the "infrared"
thermometer must be placed immediately next to the end of the observed
3. If you can arrange to have the prism more distant from the projected
spectrum, the wavelengths will be spread out farther, giving more room to
explore the infrared. However, the difference in the thermometer readings
will be smaller since they will intercept less energy.
Herschel's experiment was important not only because it led to the
discovery of infrared light, but also because it was the first time that
someone showed that there were forms of light that we cannot see with
As we now know, there are many other types of light that we cannot see
and the visible colors are only a very small part of the entire range of
light which we call the electromagnetic spectrum.