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.