Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2115

by John H. Lienhard

Today, let's measure the color of water. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

The Color of Water is the title of a book by Black author James McBride about his White mother. When asked which color God was, she told him, He is the color of water. The metaphor is powerful; however, water might have color after all.

But I'm ahead of my story. Let us back up and meet Walthère Victor Spring, born in Belgium in 1848. Spring's father was a physiology professor at Liège, and young Spring was a disappointment -- only a so-so scholar and especially weak in classical languages. So he quit school and went off to become a gunsmith -- a trade for which he had real talent.

As his confidence emerged, Spring retook the university entrance exams and passed them. He got a degree in mining engineering, but grew more interested in science. He went on to study physical chemistry with Friederich Kekulé and Rudolph Clausius.

Like his father, he became a professor at the University of Liège. What served him there was not any mastery of classical languages, but his gunsmithing. He was a fine experimentalist who took a great interest in the writings of British physicist John Tyndall.

Tyndall, himself a great experimentalist and observer, wrote about how powdered snow was compacted into glaciers. Spring responded with experiments in which he compressed all sorts of granular materials in a specially designed screw press. Each turned into an extraordinarily dense solid. Then he used those same techniques to study phase equilibrium in solids.

He followed Tyndall's lead again in 1870. Tyndall had previously suggested that the sky appears to be blue because short wavelength light -- blue light -- is scattered sideways. Tyndall thought that particles in the air caused the scattering. Later, it turned out that the air molecules themselves scatter blue light. Tyndall also did a very clever experiment: he invented means for creating optically pure air, with no particulates at all.

He did not see any color in air, but Spring said, Wait a minute. Maybe if I create optically pure water, it will have a color of its own. He put his talent with apparatus to the creation of an 85-foot-long tube filled with almost perfectly clean water. Then he shone white light along it. It worked!

He was able to tell us that water is "a pure cerulean blue similar to that of the sky at its zenith when seen from a high mountain." Spring didn't try to explain that blue. But we now know that the long red wavelengths in his light beam were absorbed by the water. Only the blue got through, making it seem blue.

And, the color of God? That too seems to depend on how the light we cast returns to us. Others saw black or white, while McBride's mother saw no color at all. So, as for the color of water, I need to go back to Crater Lake, Oregon -- to contemplate its deep soul-settling blue while I think about measurement and perception.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

S. Ross, Spring, Walthère Victor. C. C. Gillispie, ed., Dictionary of Scientific Biography, Vol. XII (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1975).

J. McBride, The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute toHis White Mother. (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996).

See this very nice discussion of the blueness of sky..

And here is an excellent discussion of the blueness of water:

multicolored sky and water

(photos by JHL)

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2006 by John H. Lienhard.