Byrne (Oliver)


In Which Coloured Diagrams and Symbols are Used Instead of Letters for the Greater Use of Learners

Published: William Pickering, London, 1847

Edition: First Edition

Current Bid: $7,750

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Estimate: $4000/5000

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First Edition; 268 pages, 4to (400 x 190 mm), illustrated throughout with diagrams printed in red, yellow, blue and black, contemporary full leather boards which are very worn and dry, a later rebacking with a title label survives in better condition but the front board is detached, marbled edges, light foxing, the coloured symbols are bright.

Book plate of Sir Henry Sanderson Furniss on the front free endpaper (a lecturer at Oxford who interestingly was partially sighted which perhaps led to his interest in this book and the coloured symbols).

Ruari McLean in Victorian Book Design, page 70, (Faber & Faber, London, 1963) describes this work as ‘one of the oddest and most beautiful books of the whole century.’

( School of Mathematics and Statistics University of St Andrews, Scotland:  Oliver Byrne's Multicoloured Euclid.

‘Over the centuries more editions of Euclid's Elements have been produced than any other book except for the Bible. In 1847 a new and radically different edition of the first six books of this important work was published by Oliver Byrne.

'In the 19th Century the book of Euclid's Elements was still the basis of school mathematics. In particular it was necessary for any pupils to be able to master the basics of geometry before they could proceed any further. Byrne made the startling claim that with the use of his edition: ... the 'Elements' of Euclid can be acquired in less than one third of the time usually employed and the retention by the memory is much more permanent; these facts have been ascertained by numerous experiments by the inventor, and several others who have adopted his plans. Byrne describes his edition as one: in which coloured diagrams and symbols are used instead of letters for the greater ease of learners.

‘His novel idea was to replace the usual symbols for lines, triangles, angles, ... like ??, Δ???, ∠???.... by coloured shapes. He had four colours (including black) at his disposal and so a line became a coloured segment: a triangle a set of (vari-coloured) lines, an angle a solid coloured shape and so on. Then, in the version of the proof of a given proposition, the various geometric entities were represented by symbols corresponding to parts of the original diagram.  Byrne believed that referring to geometric entities via a labelling like ???... obscured the essentials of a proof and made it harder to understand and remember…..

‘There were, however, severe difficulties in implementing this approach. Not the least was the difficulty of accurate colour printing. In the 1840s this was a rarity and Byrne was lucky to find a publisher who was prepared to take on the task. He found William Pickering, who, with the assistance of the type-setter Charles Whittingham, produced a masterly version of Byrne's vision.

‘The production included decorated capitals similar to those in mediaeval illustrated manuscripts. The Elements really did seem to be like a copy of the Bible!

‘Alas, such a production was bound to be expensive. The volume cost 25 shillings at a time when a comparable edition in black and white would have been about 2 shillings. Consequently sales were limited and in the end the printers were left with about 75% of the print run. In fact the production costs of this work (and similar high-class examples of elaborate printing) contributed to the bankruptcy of Pickering a few years later. This means that only a few copies of Byrne's work found their way into circulation and hence, by the peculiar irony of the second-hand book trade, those that did are now extremely valuable.’

  • Size: 4to (400 x 190 mm)
  • Name: Clarke's Africana & Rare Books
  • Contact Person: Paul Mills
  • Country: South Africa
  • Email: [email protected]
  • Telephone: 021 794 0600
  • Preferred Payment Methods: Visa & Mastercard via PayGate secure links and Bank transfers.
  • Trade Associations: ABA - ILAB, SABDA

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