Nicol prism
A Nicol prism is a type of polarizer
A polarizer is an optical filter that passes light of a specific polarization and blocks waves of other polarizations. It can convert a beam of light of undefined or mixed polarization into a beam with well-defined polarization. The common types of polarizers are linear polarizers and circular...

, an optical device used to produce a polarized beam of light from an unpolarized beam. See polarized light. It was the first type of polarizing prism
Prism (optics)
In optics, a prism is a transparent optical element with flat, polished surfaces that refract light. The exact angles between the surfaces depend on the application. The traditional geometrical shape is that of a triangular prism with a triangular base and rectangular sides, and in colloquial use...

 to be invented, in 1828 by William Nicol (1770–1851) of Edinburgh
Edinburgh is the capital city of Scotland, the second largest city in Scotland, and the eighth most populous in the United Kingdom. The City of Edinburgh Council governs one of Scotland's 32 local government council areas. The council area includes urban Edinburgh and a rural area...

. It consists of a rhombohedral crystal of Iceland spar
Iceland spar
Iceland spar, formerly known as Iceland crystal, is a transparent variety of calcite, or crystallized calcium carbonate, originally brought from Iceland, and used in demonstrating the polarization of light . It occurs in large readily cleavable crystals, easily divisible into rhombs, and is...

 (a variety of calcite
Calcite is a carbonate mineral and the most stable polymorph of calcium carbonate . The other polymorphs are the minerals aragonite and vaterite. Aragonite will change to calcite at 380-470°C, and vaterite is even less stable.-Properties:...

) that has been cut at an angle of 68° with respect to the crystal axis, cut again diagonally, and then rejoined as shown using, as a glue, a layer of transparent Canada balsam
Canada balsam
Canada balsam, also called Canada turpentine or balsam of fir, is a turpentine which is made from the resin of the balsam fir tree of boreal North America...


Unpolarized light enters through the left face of the crystal, as shown in the diagram, and is split into two orthogonally polarized, differently directed, rays by the birefringence
Birefringence, or double refraction, is the decomposition of a ray of light into two rays when it passes through certain anisotropic materials, such as crystals of calcite or boron nitride. The effect was first described by the Danish scientist Rasmus Bartholin in 1669, who saw it in calcite...

 property of the calcite.