The following represents an annoted history of marine bioluminescence according to E.N. Harvey, the “Dean of Bioluminescence” (1887-1959). Taken from his 1957 book A History of Luminescence.

  • 500 B.C. Aniximenes
    He described light exhibited by the sea when struck with an oar
  • 350 B.C. Aristotle (Meterologia) [Greek philosopher] Considered lightning similar to when “you strike the sea with a rod by night and the water is seen to shine”.
  • 215 B.C. Titus Livius
    Related luminescence to fire — “the sea was aflame”, “the shores were also luminous with frequent fires”.
  • 50 A.D. Pliny the Elder
    Described the luminous slime of “Pulmo marinus” (jellyfish): “a walking stick rubbed with the pulmo marinus will light the way like a torch” He also mentioned the luminescence of glowworms, the mollusc Pholas, and the lantern fish “Lucerna pisces”
  • 100 A.D. Martialis
    “the wave betrayed the lurking dame: brightly she showed, though covered by the overlapping water”
  • 1605 Francis Bacon [English philosopher] “…it is not the property of fire alone to give light; …small drops of the [sea]water, struck off by the motion of the oars in rowing, seem sparkling and luminous.”
  • 1637 Rene Descartes [French philosopher and scientist] Striking seawater will “generate sparks rather similar to those which are emitted by pieces of flint when they are struck.”
  • 1671 Jacques Rohault [French mathematician and physicist] “Why the water of the sea shines when it is in violent Agitation: When the Waters of the Sea are violently agitated in a very hot Season, its Waves should throw out an infinite Number of Sparks in the Night into the Air…. some of the Particles of the Salt, which are the most solid and most agitated…dart themselves into the Air…as to be surrounded only by the Matter of the first Element, which may communicate a force to them sufficient to impel the second Element, and so produce Light.
    Why stagnating Water does not Sparkle at all: Brine whose Parts are covered with Dirt and as it were rusty, are no Ways proper to produce these Sparks.
    Why this Shining is chiefly seen in Summer: It is further necessary, that the Parts of fresh water…[must] give the particles of Salt liberty to disengage themselves; now this can never be but only in the greatest Heat of the Summer; and therefore we ordinarily see such sparks in that Season only.”
  • 1680 Robert Boyle
    “I am tempted to supect, that some cosmical law or custom of the terrestrial globe, or, at least, of the planetary vortex, may have a considerable agency in the production of these effects.”
  • 1665 Robert Hooke
    Light is a vibratory motion.
    “…the shining of sea-water…shines not till either it be beaten against a Rock, or be some other wayes broken or agitated by Storms or Oars, or other percussing bodies.”
  • 1675 William Simpson [London physician] “Wood shines not till its principles of Acid and Sulphur, by a retrograde motion, fall into a new sort of Fermentation….I look upon the slender woven flame inherent in Glo-worms, and other foresaid putrid juices to proceed from a mutual, but gentle vibration of the principles in their retrograde motion…”
  • 1686 Robert Plot [Oxford professor of chemistry] “the salt-water of the Sea…may become luciferous by the same means that rotten-wood and stinking fish are so: which yet shine not so much upon account of their rottenness as they doe of their moisture.”
  • 1688 Pere Guy Tachard [during cruise to Siam] “We attribute the cause to the heat of the sun, which has, as it were, impregnated and filled the sea during the day with an infinity of fiery and luminous spirits. There spirits after dark reunite to pass out in a violent state…”
  • 1692 Domenico Bottoni [Italian physician] “When the wings [of a firefly] were tied together abandoning their constant movement, the light faded. In the same way, the glitter of the sea, of fish and putrid wood depends on motion.”
  • 1713 Father Bourzes [Jesuit missionary in the East Indies] “…in sailing over some Places of the Sea, we find a Matter or Substance of different Colours, sometimes red, sometines yellow. In looking at it, one would think it was Saw-dust: Our Sailors say it is the Spawn or Seed of Whales. What it is, is not certain; but when we draw up Water in passing over these Places, it is always viscous and glutinous….”
  • 1717 Sir Isaac Newton
    “…do not all Bodies…emit Light as often as those parts are sufficiently agitated; whether that agitation be made by Heat, or by Friction, or Percussion, or Putrefaction, or by any vital Motion, or any other Cause? As for instance; Sea-Water in a raging Storm”
  • 1717 J.J.D. de Mairan [known for studies of the aurora borealis] Described luminous “pulmon marine” (jellyfish). He believed luminescence was due to movement of sulphur disengaged from surrounding material.
  • 1747 Benjamin Franklin
    First thought phosphorescence was due to electricity. 1753 – “It is indeed possible, that an extremely small animalcule, too small to be visible even by the best glasses, may yet give a visible light”
  • 1753 Henry Baker
    Letter from Joseph Sparshall describes light emission from “Animalcule” (now known to be the dinoflagellate Noctiluca).
  • 1754 Godeheu de Riville
    First description of phosphorescent ostracods (crustaceans).
  • 1762 Pehr Forskal [natural history professor in Copenhagen] Observed that the periphery of “medusa noctiluca” (the dinoflagellate Noctiluca) luminesced more markedly than the center.
  • 1765 M. Rigaut [“marine physician’ at Calais] He tested whether phosphorescence of the sea was due to “animalcules”. He added acid to seawater to stimulate light emission (technique still used to this day to stimulate dinoflagellate bioluminescence). Rigaut believed sea light was due to “marine insects”.
  • 1800 Bosc
    Reported that ctenophores (comb jellies) are phosphorescent.
  • 1830 G.A. Michaelis
    He described organisms present in phosphorescent water of Kiel harbor (Germany).
  • 1834 C.G. Ehrenberg [eminent protozoologist] He isolated organisms (dinoflagellates) which were stimulated to emit light with acid.
  • 1888 Eilhardt Wiedemann
    He coined the term “luminescenz” for “all those phenomena of light which are not solely conditioned by the rise in temperature”.