Title page, Oliver Byrne, <i>The First Six Books of the Elements of Euclid</i>, 1847 (Linda Hall Library)

Title page, Oliver Byrne, The First Six Books of the Elements of Euclid, 1847 (Linda Hall Library)

Oliver Byrne

JULY 31, 2020

Scientist of the Day - Oliver Byrne

Oliver Byrne, an eccentric British Victorian mathematician, was born July 31, 1810.  Byrne is best known for publishing an edition of the first six books of Euclid’s Elements (1847), in which he used primary colors to demonstrate some of the steps in the Euclidean proofs. The result was certainly one of the most attractive and appealing textbooks of geometry ever printed. We see above the title-page with its Pythagorean theorem vignette, and below a theorem that demonstrates, geometrically, that (a + b)2 = a2 +2ab + b2.  We also provide links to a page that deals with parallel lines transected by a third line, producing equal alternate interior angles, and to another with the full proof of the Pythagorean theorem.

Byrne’s book was rediscovered in the late 20th century as an example of early innovative graphic design, and it has been popular ever since. We have two copies in our History of Science Collection. Some years ago the German publisher Taschen issued a facsimile of Byrne’s Euclid at a ridiculously low price; it has disappeared from their web site, but new copies still seem to be available at online bookstores, if you are looking for an unusual holiday gift for a mathematically inclined friend. It has always surprised me that the cover of Byrne’s book was not printed in color. It is attractive enough, embossed in gold, but a little red and blue against the gold would really have set it off. Perhaps they lacked the capability to emboss bindings in color in 1847. The one portrait we have of Byrne is rather odd; it is posthumously printed, yet it depicts a young Oliver, trying perhaps to show that mathematics can be as Romantic as geology. Just over a year ago, I wrote a post on Edmund Clerihew Bentley and introduced the verse-form “clerihew” to those of you who needed an introduction.  I even wrote a clerihew of my own and promised to include more.  It has been some time since that overture, but I have now written my second clerihew, this one on Byrne and his Euclid.  Better yet, it has again been illustrated by the Library’s staff designer, Melissa Dehner, who is even better than G.K. Chesterton at making a silly verse worth reading.

Oliver Byrne, clerihew by the author, calligraphy and gouache drawing by Melissa Dehner

Oliver Byrne, clerihew by the author, calligraphy and gouache drawing by Melissa Dehner

Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor emeritus, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City. Comments or corrections are welcome; please direct to ashworthw@umkc.edu.