Joseph von Fraunhofer (1787–1826)

Joseph von Fraunhofer was born in Straubing, Bavaria, on 6 March 1787. Orphaned at the age of 11, he did an apprenticeship as lens- and mirror-maker, after which he became employed in a Munich company making scientific instruments. He learned mathematics and became very skilled in applied optics. He was active in the Bavarian academy of sciences, where his skills in applied optics attracted attention. In 1823 he was appointed director of the Physics Museum in Munich, and received the (honorary) title of Professor. He died of tuberculosis in Munich on 7 June 1826.

Joseph von Fraunhofer image
Etching of Joseph von Fraunhofer (1787–1826).
Credit: Wikipedia.

In 1812–1814 Fraunhofer was fully engaged in the design ofachromatic objective lenses for telescopes, which required the accurate determination of refractive indices ofoptical glasses. Examining the spectrum of solar light passing through a thin slit, he noticed a multitude of dark lines. These had not been noticed by Isaac Newton in 1666 because he shone light from the whole solar disk through a circular hole into his prisms. They had been noticed by William H. Wollaston in 1802, who however, recorded the presence of only seven dark lines. Well aware that some of these lines could be used as wavelength standards, Fraunhofer accurately measured the position of 324 of the 500 or so lines he could see in his solar spectrum. He labeled the most prominent spectral lines with letters, establishing a nomenclature that survives to this day. Although he did notice and comment upon the wave length coincidence between his D line and a prominent line in laboratory flame spectrum (now known to be due to Sodium), he did not pursue the matter much further.

In 1821 Fraunhofer built the first diffraction grating, comprised of 260 close parallel wires. Well versed in the mathematical wave theory of light, Fraunhofer used his diffraction grating to actually measure wavelength of specific colors and dark lines in the solar spectrum. He also built and studied reflection gratings.

Fraunhofer did succeed, in 1817, in designing an achromatic objective lense; with minor modifications, his design is still in use today.

Porter, R. (ed.) 1994, The Biographical Dictionary of Scientists, Oxford University Press.
Herrmann, D.B. 1973, Geschichte der Astronomie von Herschel bisHertzsprung (trans. K. Krisciunas, The History of Astronomyfrom Herschel to Hertzspring, Cambridge University Press, 1984).