AIP History Center Newsletter
Volume XXXVI , No. 1, Spring 2004

Why Collect Old Physics Textbooks?

Recently the Niels Bohr Library received a fine collection of old natural philosophy and physics textbooks donated by Thomas W. Sills. This collection, concentrating on textbooks from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, is the result of twenty years of collecting. As a serious bibliophile, Sills assembled the collection because he holds a Ph.D. in both physics and education, and because he often reviews college physics textbook manuscripts for various publishers.
A School Compendium of Natural and Experimental Philosophy by  Richard Green Parker
From a book recently donated by T.W. Sills. A classroom experiment explained in Richard Green Parker, A School Compendium of Natural and Experimental Philosophy. 17th edition (New York, 1850). As one learns from the book's front matter, it was used in the schools of Boston from 1838. In 1847, Parker (a principal of a Boston grammar school) issued a revision to incorporate recently purchased teaching apparatus "substituted for the cheap and defective sets" formerly in use.

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Dr. Sills feels that educators underestimate the role of textbooks in the development of young scientists and the new science they create. For example, in an article in the Journal of College Science Teaching (November 1987) titled "First-Generation Teaching," he argues that Isaac Newton's college science textbook, Geographia Generalis (1650), may well have helped Newton toward the idea of universal gravitation.

According to Dr. Sills, "Collecting books is a great avocation for physics students of all ages. Collecting rare books is all the fun of the successful book, Gold in Your Attic, and PBS television's `Antiques Roadshow.' There is nothing better than discovering a used bookstore with a proprietor who buys great books. You can visit such a store on a regular basis to raid the shelves. For antiquarian or rare books, you can know more about the authenticity of your purchase by reading reference works on books in your local used book store or library.

"Today used, rare, and antiquarian books are best found on the Internet. For rare and antiquarian books a good center is run by the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America ( with the sites of 50
First Lessons in Natural Philosophy for Children, Part Second by Mary A. Swift
From a book recently donated by T.W. Sills. A lesson from Mary A. Swift,
First Lessons in Natural Philosophy for Children, Part Second (Hartford, 1853). Such books were widely used for home instruction in rural areas.

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dealers. They know what they have and do not hesitate to ask a strong price. Antiquarian dealers offer their books on their individual Web sites, via catalog mailings, and at book fairs. If you have $100 to spend, you will never regret buying one book for $100 instead of 20 books for $5 each. General Internet auctions like those on eBay allow individuals to sell books they know nothing about. Bids will escalate dramatically at the auction's close when more than one knowledgeable bidder waits until the last minute. If there's no competition, you can become a big winner."

Currently Dr. Sills teaches at Wright College in Chicago, Illinois. He created a new course there, "Great Books Astronomy," where students read English translations of several great astronomers and physicists. For example, original definitions of time, authored by Aristotle, Newton and Einstein, are compared. He is the author of two award-winning guidebooks for parents and teachers, Science Fun in Chicagoland and Science Fun with Toys.

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