Poe and Optics

19th Century Optic Theory.


Robert Smith

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According to Scheick, in An Intrinsic Luminosity, Poe’s writings must have been influenced by the work of Dr. Robert Smith. Smith is best known for the Smith-Helmholtz Equation (μ sin θy = μ' sin θ'y') was a Master and Professor of Astronomy at Trinity College, Cambridge. Through his research into Astronomy, Smith became learned in the growing field of Optics, researching the works of Plato, Aristotle, and Newton. In Smiths book "The Compleat System of Opticks", Smith explains and expands upon the works of Newton with references to Aristotle and Euclid.  His elucidations on optical theory were so popular in the 18th century that they were adapted into a textbook published in 1778, "The Elementary Parts of Dr. Smith's Complete System of Optics." Throughout this book he makes numerous direct references to works of Isaac Newton while simplifying, explaining, and proving Newton's optic theories.



David Brewster

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Sir David Brewster (1781-1868) was an Scottish Physicist, Mathematician, and Astronomer. He is best know for his work on the diffraction of light, especially the relation between crystalline structure and refraction.  By 1818, he had received an LL. D from Marischal College in Aberdeen, the Copely and Rumford medals, and a membership in the Royal Society of London, then the premier scientific society in England.  In 1832, Brewster wrote an essay attempting to expose "The Mechanical Turk," an allegedly automatonic chess player that operated as a travelling exposition from the mid 18th to mid 19th centuries.  Poe is thought to have borrowed heavily from this essay in his own exposition on the Turk, "Maelzel's Chess Player" (1836), while criticizing Brewster's "flawed" exposition.