I’m a fan of C. F. Gauss but I have to be objective — I don’t understand why the classical theory of lenses is called “Gaussian optics”. I think so since it seems that almost all the results of Gauss’s treatise from 1840 were already known — the lens-maker formula was known already from the 17th century, C. Huygens clarified many aspects of geometrical optics, and L. Euler published an extensive study of design of optical instruments in his Dioptrica. So what is special and groundbreaking about Gauss’s contributions?

On this occasion, I’ll be glad if anyone can give a concise summary of Gauss’s contributions to optics — his published as well as unpublished manuscripts.


1 Answer 1


I’d say that F. Jentzsch (1925, p. 863) gives just the concise summary you want (emphasis added):

Secondly, one had to understand and sufficiently clarify certain general properties of optical systems, such as the concepts of focal distance, focal points, principal points, magnification, etc. This was provided by Gauss. He was the first to bring his forerunners’ works to a certain closure, mainly by also treating systems with arbitrary thickness, and by showing that any (rotationally symmetric) system could be replaced in thought by a single refracting surface, or by a thin lens and a translation.

(“Forerunners” acknowledged in Gauss (1841, 1843) are Cotes, Smith, Euler, Lagrange, Piola, and Möbius.) A more detailed account, by C. Schaefer in Gauss’ Werke (Vol. XI.2, Abh. 2, §III, 1929), mainly agrees and adds (pp. 189, 201; paraphrased translation from Dunnington, 1955):

According to his own claim he had possessed the results for forty or forty-five years, but had always hesitated to publish such elementary meditations. A work of Bessel on the determination of the focal distance of the Königsberg heliometer gave him the impetus necessary for publication. Bessel’s method assumed mistakenly that the usual lens formula $$ \frac1g+\frac1b=\frac1f $$ is correct for lenses of finite thickness. As a consequence of this mistake, Bessel greatly underestimated the possible error of his measurement. Dioptrische Untersuchungen [gives] formulas for a simple lens of nonvanishing thickness [$\ldots$] While Bessel estimated the error of his result at 1/75,000, Gauss showed that it amounted to 1/1,300.

  • $\begingroup$ i added a comment here. Can you describe Gauss's work on the problem of removal of chromatic aberration? $\endgroup$
    – user2554
    Jul 1, 2018 at 11:10
  • $\begingroup$ I ask about chromatic aberration there. $\endgroup$
    – user2554
    Jul 1, 2018 at 13:22
  • $\begingroup$ I'm satisfied from your answer here. I want an answer there, on the subject of chromatic aberration. $\endgroup$
    – user2554
    Jul 2, 2018 at 15:01
  • $\begingroup$ Ah! Good :-) Sorry for being dense. I’ll erase these comments. $\endgroup$ Jul 2, 2018 at 16:57

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