1902 Encyclopedia > Tides > [On the Nature of Tides] Historical Sketch

(Part 4)


4. Historical Sketch
[Footnote 355-1]

In 1687 Newton laid the foundation for all that has since been added to the theory of the tides when he brought his grand generalization of universal gravitation to bear on the subject.


Kepler had indeed at an earlier date recognized the tendency of the water of the ocean to move towards the centres of the sun and moon, but he was unable to submit his theory to calculation. Galileo expresses his regret that so acute a man as Kepler should have produced a theory which appeared to him to reintroduce the occult qualities of the ancient philosophers. His own explanation referred the phenomenon to the rotation and orbital motion of the earth, and he considered that it afforded a principal proof of the Copernican system.


In the 19th corollary of the 66th proposition of book i. of the Principia, Newton introduces the conception of a canal circling the earth, and he considers the influence of a satellite on the water in the canal. He remarks that the movement of each molecule of fluid must be accelerated in the conjunction and opposition of the satellite with the molecule, and retarded in the quadratures, so that the fluid must undergo a tidal oscillation. It is, however, in propositions 26 and 27 of book iii. that he first determines the tidal force due to the sun and moon. The sea is here supposed to cover the whole earth, and to assume at each instant a figure of equilibrium, and the tide-generating bodies are supposed to move in the equator. Considering only the action of the sun, he assumes that the figure is an ellipsoid of revolution with its major axis directed towards the sun, and he determines the ellipticity of such an ellipsoid. High solar tide then occurs at noon and midnight, and low tide at sunrise and sunset. The action of the moon produces a similar ellipsoid, but of greater ellipticity. The superposition of these ellipsoids gives the principal variations of tide. He then proceeds to consider the influence of latitude on the height of tide, and to discuss other peculiarities of the phenomenon. Observation shows, however, that spring tides occur a day and a half after syzygies, and Newton falsely attributed this to the fact that the oscillations would last for some time if the attractions of the two bodies were to cease.

"Astres fictifs"

The Newtonian hypothesis, although it fails in the form which he gave to it, may still be made to represent the tides, if the lunar and solar ellipsoids have their major axes always directed towards a fictitious moon and sun, which are respectively at constant distances from the true bodies; these distances are such that the syzygies of the fictitious planets occur about a day or a day and a half later than the true syzygies. In fact, the actual tides may be supposed to be generated directly by the action of the real sun and moon, and the wave may be imagined to take a day and a half to arrive at the port of observation.

Age of Tide

This period has accordingly been called "the age of the tide." In what precedes the planets have been supposed to move in the equator; but the theory of the two ellipsoids cannot be reconciled with the truth when they move in orbits inclined to the equator. At equatorial ports the theory of the ellipsoids would at spring tides give morning and evening high waters of nearly equal height, whatever the declinations of the bodies. But at a port in any other latitude these high waters would be of very different heights, and at Brest, for example, when the declinations of the bodies are equal to the obliquity of the elliptic, the evening tide would be eight times as great as the morning tide. Now observation shows that at this port the two tides are nearly equal to one another, and that their greatest difference is not a thirtieth of their sum.

Newton here also offered an erroneous explanation of the phenomenon. In fact, we shall see that by Laplace’s dynamical theory the diurnal tide is evanescent when the ocean is of uniform depth over the earth. At many non-European ports, however, the diurnal tide is very important, and thus as an actual means of prediction the dynamical theory, where the ocean is treated as of uniform depth, may be hardly better than the equilibrium theory.

D. Bernoulli and Others

In 1738 the Academy of Sciences of Paris offered, as a subject for a prize, the theory of the tides. The authors of four essays received prizes, viz., Daniel Bernoulli, Euler, Maclaurin, and Cavalleri. The first three adopted not only the theory of gravitation but also Newton’s method of the superposition of the two ellipsoids. Bernoulli’s essay contained an extended development of the conception of the two ellipsoids, and, under the name of the equilibrium theory, it is commonly associated with his name. Laplace gives an account and critique of the essays of Bernoulli and Euler in the Mécanique Céleste. The essay of Maclaurin presented little that was new in tidal theory, but is notable as containing those theorems concerning the attraction of ellipsoids which we now know by his name. In 1746 D’Alembert wrote a paper in which he treated the tides of the atmosphere; but this work, like Maclaurin’s, is chiefly remarkable for the importance of collateral points.


The theory of the tidal movements of an ocean was therefore, as Laplace remarks, almost untouched when in 1774 he first undertook the subject. In the Mécanique Céleste he gives an interesting account of the manner in which he was led to attack the problem. We shall give below the investigation of the tides of an ocean covering the whole earth; the theory is substantially Laplace’s, although presented in a somewhat different form. This theory, although very wide, is far from representing the tides of our ports. Observation shows, in fact, that the irregular distribution of land and water and the variable depth of the ocean produce an irregularity in the oscillations of the sea of such complexity that the rigorous solution of the problem is altogether beyond the power of analysis.

Principle of Forced Oscillations

Laplace, however, rested his discussion of tidal observation on this principle—The state of oscillation of a system of bodies in which the primitive conditions of movement have disappeared through friction is coperiodic with the forces acting on the system. Hence, if the sea is solicited by a periodic force expressed as a coefficient multiplied by the cosine of an angle which increases proportionately with the time, there results a partial tide, also expressed by the cosine of an angle which increases at the same rate; but the phase of the angle and the coefficient of the cosine in the expression for the height may be very different from those occurring in the corresponding term of the equilibrium theory. The coefficients and the constants or epochs of the angles in the expressions for the tide are only derivable from observation. The action of the sun and moon is expressible in a converging series of similar cosines; whence there arise as many partial tides, which by the principle of superposition may be added together to give the total tide at any port. In order to unite the several constants of the partial tides Laplace considers each tide as being produced by a fictitious satellite moving uniformly on the equator. Sir W. Thomson and others have followed Laplace in this conception; but in the present article we shall not do so. The difference of treatment is in reality only a matter of phraseology, and the proper motion of each one of Laplace’s astres fictifs is at once derivable from the argument (or angle under the sign of cosine), which we shall here associate with the partial tides.

Lubbock, Whewell, and Airy

Subsequently to Laplace the most important workers in this field were Sir John Lubbock (senior), Whewell, and Airy. The work of Lubbock and Whewell (see § 34 below) is chiefly remarkable for the coordination and analysis of enormous masses of data at various ports, and the construction of trustworthy tide-tables and of cotidal maps. Airy contributed an important review of the whole tidal theory. He also studied profoundly the theory of waves in canals, and explained the effects of frictional resistances on the progress of tidal and other waves. Of other authors whose work is of great importance we shall speak below.

Amongst all the grand work which has been bestowed on this difficult subject, Newton, notwithstanding his errors, stands out first, and next to him we must rank Laplace. However original any future contribution to the science of the tides may be it would seem as though it must perforce be based on the work of these two.


A complete list of works bearing on the theory of the tides, from the time of Newton down to 1881, is contained in vol. ii. of the Bibliographie de l’Astronomie by Houzeau and Lancaster (Brussels, 1882). This list does not contain papers on the tides of particular ports, and we are not aware of the existence of any catalogue of works on practical observation, reduction of observations, prediction, and tidal instruments. References are, however, given below to several works on these points.


355-1 Founded on Laplace, Mécanique Céleste, bk. xiii. chap. i.

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