The History of Color Measurement Devices

People have been working to understand color for centuries. Because color plays such a large role in many aspects of life — from art to commerce — people need reliable ways to communicate about color. Color measurement instruments make it possible to consistently quantify, compare and reproduce colors, essentially eliminating miscommunication between designers, manufacturers and organizations that need to define specific shades.

The possibilities color measurement offers today arose from years of study and development. When you understand the history of color measurement devices, you can better understand how they work and the benefits they offer. Let’s take a look at how far the color measurement field has come.

Early Discoveries in Color Measurement

Before people could develop ways to measure color, they needed to understand what color is and how it is perceived. As a result, some of the earliest discoveries in color measurement involve the nature of light. In the mid-1600s, Isaac Newton used prisms to show that refraction could break white light into the constituent components of the visible light spectrum — red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. In 1692, he would write “Opticks,” which would serve as a basic, if imperfect, foundation for color research.

In the early 1800s, Thomas Young proposed the idea that red, green and blue color receptors in the human eye work together to create the wide variety of colors we perceive. Later, James Clerk Maxwell furthered this theory by showing that red, green and blue light could combine to create almost any desired color. Although Maxwell was not the first person to suggest that light acts as a wave, he did show that those wavelengths could be quantified as a form of electromagnetic energy in nanometers.

Color Spaces and Tolerancing

The next step toward more accurate color measurement came with the development of color spaces. Color spaces are mathematical organizations of color that allow for the mapping and accurate reproduction of specific colors. In 1931, the International Commission on Illumination (CIE) published the 1931 XYZ color space.

In 1941, Richard Hunter developed an improved tristimulus color model called Hunter Lab, which quantifies color on three axes to represent color differences uniformly. CIE published an updated version of the L*a*b* model in 1976, and most color measurement instruments use it today.

Around the same time that Richard Hunter was developing the Hunter Lab color space, David MacAdam created the first tolerancing diagram, defining the level of variation in color needed before observers notice a difference.

A History of Color Measurement Devices

The earliest color measurement devices were colorimeters. These expensive devices mimicked the human eye’s tristimulus response, quantifying the red, green and blue components of a sample’s color to determine its location in color space. As we have deepened our understanding of color, colorimetry devices have improved dramatically, becoming more accurate and accessible. Today, most people use spectrophotometers to measure color. These instruments filter light into narrow bands for analysis across the visible spectrum.

Spectrophotometers have seen several technological improvements over the years. Modern color measurement instruments feature geometries that allow them to measure a wide variety of surfaces, including reflective, transparent and curved. Today’s spectrophotometers can even take measurements from multiple angles. In the future, we will likely see color measurement technology improve further as devices become more interconnected.

At HunterLab, we offer a variety of cutting-edge color measurement solutions for modern applications. To learn more about improvements in color measurement, read our other blog posts or contact us today.