Planck, the quantum, and the historians

Document Type


Publication Date



Physical Sciences and Mathematics | Physics


In late 1900, the German theoretical physicist Max Planck derived an expression for the spectrum of black-body radiation. That derivation was the first step in the introduction of quantum concepts into physics. But how did Planck think about his result in the early years of the twentieth century? Did he assume that his derivation was consistent with the continuous energies inherent in Maxwellian electrodynamics and Newtonian mechanics? Or did he see the beginnings, however tentative and uncertain, of the quantum revolution to come? Historians of physics have debated this question for over twenty years. In this article, I review that debate and, at the same time, present Planck's achievement in its historical context.