Sir William Herschel, an astronomer, discovered infrared in 1800. He built his own telescopes and was therefore very familiar with lenses and mirrors. Knowing that sunlight was made up of all the colors of the spectrum, and that it was also a source of heat, Herschel wanted to find out which color(s) were responsible for heating objects. He devised an experiment using a prism, paperboard, and thermometers with blackened bulbs where he measured the temperatures of the different colors.

Herschel observed an increase in temperature as he moved the thermometer from violet to red in the rainbow created by sunlight passing through the prism. He found that the hottest temperature was actually beyond red light. The radiation causing this heating was not visible; Herschel termed this invisible radiation "calorific rays." Today, we know it as infrared.