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History corner: Byrne's Euclid, 1847

Oliver Byrne’s 1847 edition of Euclid’s Geometry is a striking example of Victorian typesetting and book design, notable for its use of colour and layout to express mathematical proofs. It seems worth sharing here for its experimental use of graphic forms for teaching geometry.


The title page reads: ‘The First Six Books of the Elements of Euclid in which coloured diagrams and symbols are used instead of letters for the greater ease of learners.’ Byrne was a surveyor, mathematician and teacher, and the contents of the book, which covers the first six books of Euclid’s ‘Elements of Geometry’, covers topics that made up the basic mathematics curriculum for many students at the time. These pictures are ones that I took of the copy held in Special Collections at the University of Reading.

(click on the spread for a larger view; more spreads after the jump)


Published in London by the Chiswick Press, the book was novel for using colour, shape and orientation to replace the traditionally letter-based coding used to present Euclidean proofs (in which a triangle would be labelled with angles a, b and c). Byrne was an expansive (even eccentric) thinker and his aim was to reduce the sheer quantity of text, and to give a visual form to the information. The result is a surprisingly modern layout: a combination of bright blue, red, and yellow woodblock-printed shapes, thoroughly integrated with the black type and rules throughout the book. The only hint of the book’s real age, on some pages, is in the odd Victorian flourish or drop cap.



Byrne’s Euclid may strike contemporary viewers as a forerunner of modernist design, eerily foreshadowing theDe Stijl colour palette; in reality it is an early example of sophisticated use of visual metaphor in information design. It also reflects developments in print in the nineteenth century, a period in which the use of colour would increase radically through multiple innovations in the productivity of the (by then) centuries-old press. The book was rediscovered with the development of information design scholarship over the last half century (like McLean's 'Victorian book design' of 1963 and Tufte's 'Envisioning Information' of 1990) and deserves to be more widely acknowledged.


How fascinating!

I'm sure the link between philosphy of science and typographical style is something worth exploring. I'm still haunted by that Isotype pastiche of the famous Hooke image of the fly's face.

I went to a great meeting on the history of chemistry publishing a few years back, and there were some AMAZING examples of Victorian and early 20th C books on dying, with really interesting use of colour. If you are interested in the period, you should ask to look at the Royal Soc of Chemist's archive. I bet their librarians would love to show off their collection.

I think there is definitely a link between typography/graphic visualisation and science. In a very broad sense, that's already been shown (e.g. Eisenstein 1979 etc.) -- but I'm interested in seeing how far it goes (so to speak). I actually think that pictures and diagrams are central to Western thought because of their necessity in the sciences. I also think that typographically organised texts (for example the kind of layout found in the Encyclopedie, Linnaeus' catalogues of botany, etc.) are central to allowing us to build any kind of knowledge.

Anyway to get back to your comment: I'd love to see these books on dyes! If they are reproducing actual dyes, they could be like sample books for people to see (e.g. the actual chemicals rather than an approximation in printing inks...) Sounds like a good Science Project day trip.

I feel really quite stunned by this book. This must have brought the subject alive for many students. What went wrong? My great uncle, DMY Sommerville, was a notable teacher and built beautiful models and wrote a number of books (eg N dimensional geometry) but his illustrations, although excellent lack the appeal of Byrne. I can't find any mention of him in any history of maths - surely an omission. Thanks for bringing him to our attention.

It may be worthwhile to mention that the whole book is now online here: