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
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
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
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
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
'Our job in physics is to see things simply, to understand a great many complicated phenomena, in terms of a few simple principles.'