“On Colour & Design”

Speech given by Lord Kelvin after the Victoria Institute Annual Address of 1899, "On the Perception of Colour", given by Sir G. Gabriel Stokes. Printed in the Journal of the Transactions of the Victoria Institute, Vol. XXXI, 1899, p. 266. (Scanned source, with context.)

The Right Hon. LORD KELVIN, G.C.V.O.—We have all listened with great interest to Sir George Stokes' treatment of one of the most difficult subjects in natural philosophy. In using the term "natural philosophy" here, I mean the study that comprehends physics and physiology—and, something beyond both, the mental perceptions and emotions connecting the physical and external with the psychical and nervous processes and with the wonderful sensorium of which we have been hearing Sir George Stokes speak.

The theory of the perception of colour which he has so clearly explained (the Young-Helmholtz theory) is, I believe, now universally accepted by scientific men over the world as absolutely true in respect of explaining the different qualities of colour; and as having a possibility of being also mechanically true in respect of this system of nerve fibres by which a hypothetical explanation of known facts is given. I will say nothing on this subject except to express my own intense interest in it, and my desire to know the truth; but I hope Lord Lister will tell us his view in respect of the triplicity of the nervous system, connected with the retina of the eye, and of the beautiful experiments of which the President has told us in respect to the different effects on certain fibres by which the sense of pressure, and the sense of heat and cold, are produced.

Now I spoke of scientific men. There are scientific ladies also—and ladies who are not scientific—and I am sure they will all thoroughly sympathise with scientific men in their appreciation of this beautiful theory.

Sir George Stokes told us that every variety of colour may be produced by the mixture of red, green and violet, and in Maxwell's practical work on the subject of which he spoke, white and black are added in the mixture, white to dilute the intensity of the colour; and black to diminish the total light emitted by a body exposed to sunlight.

Now in these times when ladies are so well occupied with important work that they scarcely have time for shopping, it would be a great comfort to them, if when they wanted a beautiful blue ribbon, they could simply write down on a piece of paper and put it in an envelope and send it to the shop; or a brilliant yellow, no black in it—3 of red, 4 of green, 0 of violet, 2 of white to brighten it up a little and dilute some of the colour. Do not imagine that you will get green by mixing yellow and blue—on the contrary, you get yellow by mixing red and green, as was first taught by Young, enforced by Helmholtz, and splendidly put in practice by Maxwell.

Sir George Stokes spoke of design. Is it conceivable that the luminiferous ether should throw out these effects by chance—that the colours of the butterfly or of a beautiful flower should result from a "fortuitous concourse of atoms," and having come by a fortuitous concourse of atoms, they should give pleasure, whatever that may mean, to another fortuitous concourse of atoms constituting myself, and I should—I don't know how to express it. The atheistic idea is so nonsensical that I do not see how I can put it in words. (Applause.) Surely design does not stop short at the production of outside physical influences but includes giving pleasure in the perception of colour. We cannot go further in such thoughts just now. Surely they bring strong evidence indeed of design, and if the Victoria Institute required proof, I think it needs nothing more than what we have heard to-day from the President, and which we all feel in regard to the beautiful effects of colour. (Applause.)

I beg to propose a cordial vote of thanks to the President for his most interesting lecture, and not only to him but to the eleven other gentlemen who have contributed the papers during the last session which have been referred to by the Honorary Secretary.