It's a truth universally acknowledged that a theory in possession of the notion of atoms founds itself in the atomos theorised by Democritus et al.

For example the corpuscules of Gassendi, Hobbes and Newton.

But what about its great competitor? The notion of waves, what was the origin of this notion?

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    How close to the current differential-equation defined waves of science do you wish to focus? I find the words used to describe the Chinese Dao and the place of humans within it often capture traits associated with waves, but that might be more of a reach than you intend.
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Jul 16, 2015 at 12:17
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    The Vedas say that what first came out of Brahman was vibration - waves. Commented Jul 16, 2015 at 15:23
  • @Ammon: not closely at all; what I'm looking for is a qualitative description; in particular what I'm looking for is that waves don't require motion in the same way that particles do not: consider a string moving as a wave - the particles that compose the string always remain in the same relation to its neighbours; this of course is very different from particles moving in space. Commented Jul 17, 2015 at 10:38
  • @swami Vishwanada: is there also a notion of breath being the first impulse? Commented Jul 17, 2015 at 10:39
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    Pythagoras musical theories perhaps? en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Musica_universalis
    – John Am
    Commented Sep 12, 2015 at 19:32

2 Answers 2


Leonardo appears to be the first to realize that moving waves involve no real motion c.1500:"It often happens that the wave flees the place of its creation, while the water does not; like the waves made in a field of grain by the wind, where we see the waves running across the field, while the grain remains in place".

A century later Galileo (and independently Mersenne) suggested that sound is a wave:"Waves are produced by the vibrations of a sonorous body, which spread through the air, bringing to the tympanum of the ear a stimulus which the mind interprets as sound". He also defined wave frequency, and showed experimentally that it correlates with pitch. Boyle did some experimental work on pressure waves c. 1660. However the first systematic physical theory involving waves, wave optics, is due to Huygens in 1678.


The theoretical foundation of the concept of waves came from the first time someone looked at a body of water. Oceans and lakes have waves lapping upon the shore. Static bodies of water get waves of ripples whenever something disturbs the surface.

Someone had to postulate a theory of atoms--the notion that there is a limit to how small things can be broken down, especially if that limit is too small for the eye to see. Waves, on the other hand, are a phenomenon as readily observable as dirt, rocks, or food. No one had to postulate the existence of waves.

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    If this were the case wave theory would have been invented by amphibians once they crawled out of water and looked back, and kinematics by electrons since motion was everywhere around them after the Big Bang. Even realization that waves do not actually move matter came relatively late, and theorizing about them came even later.
    – Conifold
    Commented Jul 16, 2015 at 20:50
  • A-tomos is a privative/negative concept, "in-divisible" it includes already a thought; waves are part of unreflexive experience. Who started first to think/theorize about them is a vague question, difficult to answer. My guess is someone in ancient Greece (remember that for them the important thing was 'moving' so the Moon is on a par with the Morning star, it is wandering, a planet, that is an astrera planetes).
    – sand1
    Commented Feb 27, 2021 at 11:07

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