When was the first experiment done, or how old is experimental physics?

Asked by: Joel Wijngaarde


It is not possible to give an exact answer to this question. When did Science begin? When did Physics begin? It began whenever and wherever Man began to try to solve the problems of his existence and how best he could improve his situation in life. The first solutions were probably no more than mere simple devices found suitable and useful and these had to do for a beginning; the discovery for instance, that a log could be rolled and perhaps cut to make a wheel. This however was not physics as we understand it today. However gradually these devices became to be compared, generalised, rationalised, simplified, related to one another and integrated albeit in a rough and awkward way and often myths would be formulated to explain phenomena.

Very slowly Science or if you like Physics, for to many people Science is Physics, slowly began to emerge.

Had you asked therefor, more specifically, when was the first successful experiment done in relation to splitting the Atom, it would be possible to reply that Ernest Rutherford in 1919 achieved this. Physics is so diverse and complex that it is not really possible to put one's finger on the very first experiment and the date thereof which started it all. I suppose for the sake of argument one could suggest that the Big Bang which is believed by many physicists to represent the beginning of Space and Time could be regarded as the first experiment, had it been orchestrated by some unknown power, which even now continues to observe the results of the experiment. I fear however that we drift into the realms of science fiction here, which although giving food for thought does not really answer your question.

We know that the Egyptians built the pyramids about 2600 B.C. and clearly they must have had considerable knowledge of Dynamics and Mechanics. It is difficult to see how they could have achieved completion of such an immense project without performing some kind of experimental work to ensure that the materials they used were suitable and certainly their knowledge of Mathematics was more than adequate for the task. The Egyptians were perhaps more technicians, than scientists, who seek explanations for what they observe, and perform experiments to verify what they think may be the case.

We must wait until the Ancient Greeks 600-200 B.C. before we can see the first glimmers of Science as we know it. They speculated in a logical way as to how the universe was put together but they did not carry out experiments in an effort to prove their points or distinguish between Hypotheses, ie provisional explanations, which is the essence of Scientific Method.

About 62 A.D. Hero of Alexandria wrote books on Dynamics and Mechanics and does appear to have been some sort of a teacher of Physics with a knowledge of Mathematics. He devised Hero's engine a primitive reaction turbine in which steam emitted by two nozzles facing in opposite directions caused rotation. In spite of all this the strict rigorous and thoroughgoing practice of Scientific Method was still to emerge.

After the Greeks the Arabs took over the development of Science but merely kept the pot boiling until the growth of European learning took off first in Italy then northern Europe in the fourteenth century. It was not until the seventeenth century that Science as we know it got under way.

An experiment is part of the process of Scientific Method. That is to say it functions with observation, recording the results accurately; the assumption of Cause and Effect i.e that every natural phenomenon, has a cause which must be investigated; the forming of a theory and the use of that theory to make predictions about the behaviour of things. Prior to this Cause and Effect was not always recognised as such, and early explanations of natural phenomena as suggested above often involved the action of sone supernatural being.

Hopefully now coming nearer to answering your question. Galileo (1564-1642) was the first Physicist of note. He carried out experiments in Dynamics, and used such scientific instruments as the telescope, microscope, and thermometer. He spoke lucidly in terms of forces, and motions of bodies, which could be measured and endeavoured to find laws relating these quantities.

The world of Physics as we recognise it today begun then, and Galileo was soon followed by more and more brilliant people like Newton who laid the foundations of Physics. These people gradually refined existing knowledge and built upon it until we have today the vast body of knowledge which we call Physics. It is as well to remember that all Science is tentative what we may believe today, subsequent research may show to be not quite correct and in need of amendment, but this is the interest in Science, and what gives it its fascination.


A History of Science by George Sarton. Harvard University Press 1959
The New Illustrated Science and Inventions Encyclopaedia. Published by H S Stuttman Inc.
The Cambridge Dictionary of Scientists by David Miller, Ian Millar, John Millar, Margaret Miller. Cambridge University Press 1996.
Microsoft Encarta CD ROM 1996.
Answered by: Don Bird, Berkshire UK