Interest in optics and scientific debate on the nature of light grew after the publication in 1704 of the work Opticks by Isaac Newton (Woolsthorpe Manor, 1642 – Kensington, 1726), in which the scientist gave an explanation of the dispersion of white light into the colours of the rainbow when refracted by a prism.

Newton demonstrated that white light is composed of colours; the prism does not alter the light, but simply breaks it up into its component hues. He hypothesized that light is composed of particles, in contrast to others such as the Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens (The Hague, 1629-1695), who maintained that light was made up of waves.
Neither theory fully explained all the experimental observations. It was not until the double-slit interference experiment conducted in 1801 by Thomas Young (Milverton, 1773 – London, 1829), that the wave theory of light became established in place of the ‘corpuscular’ theory.

The first instrument inventory of the Collegio Mariano physics laboratory undertaken in 1793 records the presence of a rock-crystal prism for the study of light’s composition and several lenses. During the 19th century the Liceo Sarpi physics laboratory acquired various equipment made necessary by new discoveries – and which reflected technological developments.