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  History - Christiaan Huygens



He was something of a universal genius, the Dutchman Christiaan Huygens, in whom the 'uy' like 'eu' and the subsequent 'g' require the guttural sound that is so popular in Dutch, like the 'ch' behind an 's'. He was born in 1629 as the second child of five to the diplomat, poet and musician Constantijn Huygens (picture above) in The Hague. The grandfather of the same first name was secretary (presumably a minister) to Wilhelm von Oranje.

He is honored as the unifier of the still fragmented Netherlands in the national anthem. t was the golden 17th century of the Netherlands in which Christiaan Huygens grew up. At the age of 8 he lost his mother. Educated at home, he learned languages and music, history, mathematics and geography, as well as horse riding, fencing and dancing. He benefited from the celebrities of his father's circle of acquaintances.

He was friends with Descartes and argued publicly with Isaac Newton.

He studied law and mathematics. He then dealt intensively with the latter and received international attention early on. He also made better lenses, with important discoveries in astronomy. His first patent for a pendulum clock with much greater accuracy than before dated from 1656. He is a co-inventor of the calculation of gravity. His greatest success is undoubtedly his wave theory of light.


The first engine with internal combustion from 1673 is also attributed to him. Here is a model of it, presumably based on a sketch he made himself. A few elements of the machine extend to Nicolaus Otto and Eugen Langen's atmo-aspheric gas engine almost 200 years later.


What is important is the role with the rope, the front end of which was connected to a piston in the upright cylinder visible here. The back end hangs down and could pull up any loads, if it were pulled by the downward piston. According to Huygens' plan, this should be water from the Seine for Louis XIV's gardens at Versailles.

The engine has apparently been shown working, but it is doubtful whether it did the job it was supposed to do. Because a continuous engine run was not given. For each stroke, the powder pan attached to the bottom of the cylinder had to be filled with gunpowder. This was ignited and sent the piston upwards and the rear end of the rope downwards.

So it was deliberately avoided to combine the actual work of the stroke with the explosion. This was only done when the piston had reached its highest point. Because then the piston released the two side lines through which all excess pressure could escape. A return was prevented by the small leather bags at the ends of the lines.

So it was the negative pressure that set in, or rather the atmospheric pressure, that pressed on the piston from above and conveyed it downwards together with the rope and payload. Its own weight helped him. But actually it wasn't a motor, because it only moved once and then has to be refilled.

You will ask why Huygens went about it so cumbersome to ensure the actual work by generating negative pressure. Quite simply: its construction would not have been able to withstand the direct pressure of gunpowder. He only used part of it and let the rest deflagrate.

Even Otto and Langen used this tactic later, admittedly not in connection with gunpowder, but with luminous gas, which was not invented until about 100 years later. This enables them to repeat the work cycle without having to reload manually. The standing cylinder was also taken over from them.

Huygens found imitators in the same century, e.g. his former assistant and now a doctor Dennis Papin. This replaced the two tubes with the leather bags through a central valve on top of the piston. Otherwise the construction was about the same.


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