Christiaan Huygens, born in 1629, was the second son of the poet Constantijn Huygens who was secretary to two Princes of Orange. Christiaan Huygens’ father had envisaged diplomatic careers for his sons and he therefore sent them to study law, first in Leiden and later in Breda. However, Christiaan was more interested in maths, physics and astronomy. As a child he refused to write verses in Latin. He preferred to tinker with tiny windmills and other model machines and to observe the ripples created by throwing a stone into water.
At an early age, Christiaan was already corresponding about various issues with authoritative scholars abroad. In 1647, the French philosopher, physicist and mathematician Mersenne wrote to Christiaan’s father: “If he continues in this way he will one day even surpass Archimedes.” For the rest of his days Constantijn Huygens referred to his son as “my Archimedes”.
Huygens was a regular visitor to England and France too, where in 1655 he was awarded a doctorate and was appointed the first director of the Royal Academy of Science in 1666. This appointment illustrates the international attention Huygens’ work attracted. From 1681 up until his death, Huygens lived either in Voorburg (in the Hofwijck summer residence designed by his father) or on the Plein (town square) in the centre of The Hague.
Christiaan was an admirer of Descartes, the “father of modern philosophy” who did not base his thinking on doctrines and theories that had been handed down across generations. He wanted to perform experiments himself, to observe and formulate laws. This new form of scientific practice became known as the Scientific Revolution. And this was exactly what Huygens did: he constantly observed, experimented and monitored.
Christiaan’s achievements lay in many fields: in mathematics, he wrote about squaring the circle, among other things. In physics, he studied free fall and pendulum motion and the pendulum clock – his best-known achievement – was a result of these studies (1656). Christiaan Huygens also worked at improving sea clocks so that they would keep as accurate time as possible on ships at sea and would not stop. Knowing the precise time was of great importance in determining the position of ships at sea.
Together with his brother Constantijn (his elder by thirteen months) with whom he corresponded frequently and to whom he was very close, Christiaan began to grind lenses for microscopes and astronomical telescopes. He discovered a ring around Saturn with such a telescope and just before that (in 1655) Titan, the first moon of a planet ever to be discovered. The peculiar phenomena around Saturn had been described by earlier scholars as some kind of “ears” of the heavenly body. Christiaan revealed the true situation and reported his findings to many authoritative astronomers in Europe. Regarding Saturn’s ring and the moon Titan he wrote: “These remain signs of my ingenuity and the names I have written across the heavens will still echo my fame long after my death.”