Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Munsell - the Father of Color Science? (part 1)

Albert Munsell. <pause for dramatic effect> Should he be credited with being the Father of Color Science? <another pause> That's my topic for today's blog post.

The question should come as no big surprise to anyone who has been following my blog. So far, his name has shown up in 20 of my blog posts. My wife is even starting to get a bit suspicious. This coming June, he will have been gone for 100 years, but jealousy can make folks a little crazy.

By the way... The 100th anniversary of the founding of the Munsell company will be celebrated this summer. Munsell Centennial Symposium will be held June 10 - 15, 2018 in his old stomping grounds, Boston. Your's truly will be keynoting, and (bonus points) I will be giving a tutorial on color measurement devices.

Let's look at some of Munsell's legacy to decide whether he deserves the honor. Today we look at Munsell's contribution to color science education.

Munsell was an enthusiastic teacher of color

Munsell's first claim on the coveted title of Father of Color Science was that he had a passion for teaching about color. Let me give some supporting evidence.

Albert Munsell, the Father of the Color Science Kids, Margaret and A.E.O.

He filed for a patent in 1899 (US Patent 640,972, A Color Sphere and Mount) for a color sphere, which was a globe, with the rainbow colors painted around the equator, with gradations of those colors mixed with white heading up to the North Pole, and with similar gradations mixed with black in the Southern Hemisphere. Quoting from his patent: "The object of my invention is to provide a spherical color chart for educational purposes." In addition, Munsell filed for a patent for a Spinning Top in 1902. One could affix colored cards to the spinning surface of the top "for the purpose of producing novel color effects". It sure sounds like Munsell was in the business of color edu-tainment to me!

Munsell's Color Sphere (left) and top (right)

He worked toward standardizing the teaching of color. In 1904, Munsell started working with teachers in Boston on a primer for teaching color in grades 4 through 9. Munsell developed a set of 22 crayons in 1906. This line was eventually added to the set of Crayola crayons sold by Binney and Smith. In 1917, the Munsell Color Company was formed to sell art supplies to schools.

Who doesn't remember the smell of a fresh box of these crayons at the start of the school year?

Incidentally, the word crayon dates back to the mid 1600's. It was Alice Binney, the wife of founder Edwin Binney who coined the word crayola, a conjunction of the prefix cray- from crayon and -ola, which means oleaginous (oily). This suffix was popular for products in the day: Mazola, granola, Victrola, and of course, Shinola. Now that you read that, don't let anyone tell you that you don't know cray from crayola!  

So, does this qualify Albert Munsell for the title of Father of Color Science? While his work was impressive, sadly, I don't think he deserves the title for these efforts.

Not to malign the guy, but Albert was not the only evangelist for proper color education at the turn of the last century. A gentleman by the name of Milton Bradley was another early chromo-vangelist. Yes. That Milton Bradley. The guy who invented the Game of Life, Operation, Battleship, and  of course Candyland. Ohhh... the late night Candyland parties we used to have when I was in college!

Bradley's colored paper samples

In Bradley's book Elementary Color he describes the Bradley System of Color Instruction, which aims "to offer a definite scheme and suitable material for a logical presentation of the truths regarding color in nature and art to the children of primary schools." The third edition of this book was published in 1895, a few years prior to the start of Munsell's colorful evangelical career. 

By the way, I should mention that Milton Bradley filed for an patent for a Color Disk Rotating Mechanism in 1893, and for a Color Mixing Top seven years before Munsell's filing for a color mixing top. To add insult to injury, Bradley developed a line of crayons in 1895, and had a business relationship with Binney and Smith for a few years, starting in 1905.

My ruling so far is that Albert Munsell is, at best, one of two Godfathers of Color Science Education. Stay tuned for the next blog post, where I investigate whether Munsell invented the three-dimensional color space!

Would you like to hear me rehash this topic in the same dreary and boring manner, but with the benefit of my dull and boring voice? Live? With the opportunity to heckle me with questions??? Sign up for the ISCC webinar.


  1. Y'know, I truly hate to rain on the Munsell parade (especially as my father had some connections to his business in the '70s) because he is important, but . . .

    But I believe you need a better definition of "Color Science" if you want to claim him as its Father. Do you mean Father of . . ."Color Science in the United States"? "Color Science in the 20th Century" (or "...after 1870"?) "Color Science As We Now Understand It?"

    Science is a process. History is about context. It is possible to argue for a Father (or possibly somewhere, a Mother) of Color Science exists in every generation that has ever thought about color or tried to impose an order on color.



    1. Sarah,

      Thanks for your articulate and well-reasoned response! I hope you take the time to read part 2 (which has been posted) and especially part 3 (not yet posted), where I lay out the case for Munsell and come to some conclusions.

      (Your comments have had a bit of influence over part 3.)