One afternoon we were showing off some of our rare books to visitors, as we are wont to do, when one of them asked if we had Thomas Young’s 1807 A Course of Lectures on Natural Philosophy and the Mechanical Arts. She was a big fan of Thomas Young and wanted to see one of the famous colored prints in person.
“To the catalog!” I yelled. Well, more like thought, as I swiveled my chair to type the title and author into our trusty search box. I quickly found that we had an 1845 edition, but not the 1807. Undeterred, I asked my colleague, Corinne Mona, to quickly check the Wenner Collection inventory we’ve been working on all year to see if we had the 1807 edition in that Collection. And we did! Corinne and I pulled both editions for our excited visitor and were impressed by how different the two editions were; this was a great illustration of why the Library collects successive editions of scientific texts and what they can tell us about the past.
As an aside, Thomas Young was a very fascinating person. Sometimes called “the last man who knew everything,” he mainly studied and practiced medicine but explored other topics of study as well; his interest in the anatomy of the eye led him to his study of optics. He wrote several papers on the workings of the eye, including a theory for how the eye could detect color. Young was appointed professor of Natural Philosophy at the Royal Institution where he was rather unpopular, as one listener put it, “he presumed...on the knowledge and not the ignorance of his hearers.” Thankfully he was undeterred by his negative press and later turned those lectures into these books, which reflect the diversity of his curiosity and knowledge about the world. He wrote confidently on a number of scientific topics that would all be separate disciplines today. He was better known for his physics than his medicine, and he was controversial for proposing that light was a wave and not a particle, which ran counter to the beloved Isaac Newton’s theory of light. If all that wasn’t enough, later in life, he helped decipher the Rosetta Stone.
Now that we know a little about Thomas Young, the person, let’s take a look at Thomas Young’s books:
The first thing we noticed about the two editions were the physical differences in their outward appearance. The 1807 edition is much larger and is fully bound in leather, whereas the 1845 edition is smaller and only half bound in leather
When investigating further we noticed some provenance details (provenance means former ownership for those who aren’t used to archivist vocab words).
The Society of Writers to Her Majesty’s Signet is a private society for Scottish lawyers, dating all the way back to 1594. Presumably, these were bound for the Society’s library. HF Norman appears to be a more contemporary owner. There’s also a clearly dated inscription from 1813, “Ex Lib. Bibl. Scribar. Sig. Reg.” All of these details paint a picture of many owners and perhaps a prized possession passed down through many hands. Up until very recently, books were expensive objects and prestigious to own, hence the large size and expensive binding. Because it wasn’t a quick reference text or something you could easily take anywhere, the book remained in good condition
The 1845 volumes look very different, even if the text remained mostly the same (the 1845 edition is technically “A New Edition with References and Notes by the Rev. P. Kelland”). The 1845 edition is much smaller in size, in spite of these added references and notes, only half bound in leather, but with some nice gold tooling and blind embossing on the spine. We also have fewer details of provenance, just our own library bookplate. Instead,we get more information about the printing. In the 1807 edition, the illustrations appeared to be hand painted, as color printing was extremely difficult. In the 1845 edition, we get a detail that appears only on the colored pages, “Baxter’s Patent Oil Printing.” Born a few years before Young’s first edition was published, George Baxter invented commercial color printing. Later in the 19th century, even cheaper and easier methods were discovered, but in 1845, printed color like this in a book was rare and special.
So what do we know about this 1845 edition? Smaller and easier to carry, though it was, it still probably wasn’t something just anyone could own. But it does show that science was becoming more popular. What used to be a hobby for rich men (and some women) was becoming more accessible to the public, as were books. By the year 1845, England was firmly in the industrialized printing era; printing and publishing were getting easier and cheaper. Even paper was getting cheaper to produce, moving from the rag paper (literally made of old cloth rags) to the much cheaper wood pulp paper. By the end of the century books were marketed to just about everyone, some costing merely a dime.
The explanations provided in this blog post are just the tip of the iceberg. By examining details found in different editions of texts, you can easily fall down the rabbit hole of the history of printing and publishing. (And that rabbit hole doesn’t even include an investigation into the actual subject matter or the author Thomas Young himself!)
The two editions of this book tell us more than just what’s written in them. They give us information about physics, optics, astronomy, etc, but they also tell us about the worlds and times they were made in and the world we live in now. They are also objects of beauty. Check out these illustrated plates I keep talking about. I’m not a physicist, I have no idea what they’re trying to tell me! I just think they’re beautiful.