October 19th, 1900 – The Law of Black-Body Radiation


It was on October 19th, 1900 when Max Planck, in his house at Grunewald, on the outskirts of Berlin, discovered the law of black-body radiation which became known as Planck’s law.

Black-body radiation is the type of electromagnetic radiation within or surrounding a body in thermodynamic equilibrium with its environment, or emitted by a black body (an opaque and non-reflective body) held at constant, uniform temperature. The radiation has a specific spectrum and intensity that depends only on the temperature of the body.


Max Planck (April 23rd, 1858 – October 4th, 1947)

The thermal radiation spontaneously emitted by many ordinary objects can be approximated as blackbody radiation. A perfectly insulated enclosure that is in thermal equilibrium internally contains black-body radiation and will emit it through a hole made in its wall, provided the hole is small enough to have negligible effect upon the equilibrium.

A black-body at room temperature appears black, as most of the energy it radiates is infra-red and cannot be perceived by the human eye. Because the human eye cannot perceive color at very low light intensities, a black body, viewed in the dark at the lowest just faintly visible temperature, subjectively appears grey (but only because the human eye is sensitive only to black and white at very low intensities – in reality, the frequency of the light in the visible range would still be red, although the intensity would be too low to discern as red), even though its objective physical spectrum peaks in the infrared range. When it becomes a little hotter, it appears dull red. As its temperature increases further it eventually becomes blindingly brilliant blue-white.

Although planets and stars are neither in thermal equilibrium with their surroundings nor perfect black bodies, black-body radiation is used as a first approximation for the energy they emit. Black holes are near-perfect black bodies, in the sense that they absorb all the radiation that falls on them. It has been proposed that they emit black-body radiation (called Hawking radiation), with a temperature that depends on the mass of the black hole.

The term black body was introduced by Gustav Kirchhoff in 1860. When used as a compound adjective, the term is typically written as hyphenated, for example, black-body radiation, but sometimes also as one word, as in blackbody radiation. Black-body radiation is also called complete radiation or temperature radiation or thermal radiation.

“Today in History” on The Pandora Society dot com is primarily focused on Victorian and Edwardian history and does not always have a direct connection to Steampunk, Dieselpunk, or whatever punk; in fact it rarely does, but it is our hope that in sharing these historical events they might serve as some inspiration to the writers in our community to create potential alternative history stories which we look forward to reading 🙂


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