A Beautifully-Designed Edition of Euclid’s Elements from 1847 Gets Digitized: Explore the New Online, Interactive Reproduction

For two mil­len­nia, Euclid­’s Ele­ments, the foun­da­tion­al ancient work on geom­e­try by the famed Greek math­e­mati­cian, was required read­ing for edu­cat­ed peo­ple. (The “clas­si­cal­ly edu­cat­ed” read them in the orig­i­nal Greek.) The influ­ence of the Ele­ments in phi­los­o­phy and math­e­mat­ics can­not be over­stat­ed; so inspir­ing are Euclid’s proofs and axioms that Edna St. Vin­cent Mil­lay wrote a son­net in his hon­or. But over time, Euclid’s prin­ci­ples were stream­lined into text­books, and the Ele­ments was read less and less.

In 1847, maybe sens­ing that the pop­u­lar­i­ty of Euclid’s text was fad­ing, Irish pro­fes­sor of math­e­mat­ics Oliv­er Byrne worked with Lon­don pub­lish­er William Pick­er­ing to pro­duce his own edi­tion of the Ele­ments, or half of it, with orig­i­nal illus­tra­tions that care­ful­ly explain the text.

“Byrne’s edi­tion was one of the first mul­ti­col­or print­ed books,” writes design­er Nicholas Rougeux. “The pre­cise use of col­ors and dia­grams meant that the book was very chal­leng­ing and expen­sive to repro­duce.” It met with lit­tle notice at the time.

Byrne’s edi­tion—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—might have passed into obscu­ri­ty had a ref­er­ence to it in Edward Tufte’s Envi­sion­ing Infor­ma­tion not sparked renewed inter­est. From there fol­lowed a beau­ti­ful new edi­tion by TASCHEN and an arti­cle on Byrne’s dia­grams in math­e­mat­ics jour­nal Con­ver­gence. Rougeux picked up the thread and decid­ed to cre­ate an online ver­sion. “Like oth­ers,” he writes, “I was drawn to its beau­ti­ful dia­grams and typog­ra­phy.” He has done both of those fea­tures ample jus­tice.

As in anoth­er of Rougeux’s online reproductions—his Werner’s Nomen­cla­ture of Colours—the design­er has tak­en a great deal of care to pre­serve the orig­i­nal inten­tions while adapt­ing the book to the web. In this case, that means the spelling (includ­ing the use of the long s), type­face (Caslon), styl­ized ini­tial cap­i­tals, and Byrne’s alter­nate designs for math­e­mat­i­cal sym­bols have all been retained. But Rougeux has also made the dia­grams inter­ac­tive, “with click­able shapes to aid in under­stand­ing the shapes being ref­er­enced.”

He has also turned all of those love­ly dia­grams into an attrac­tive poster you can hang on the wall for quick ref­er­ence or as a con­ver­sa­tion piece, though this sem­a­phore-like arrange­ment of illustrations—like the sim­pli­fied Euclid in mod­ern textbooks—cannot replace or sup­plant the orig­i­nal text. You can read Euclid in ancient Greek (see a primer here), in Latin and Ara­bic, in Eng­lish trans­la­tions here, here, here, and many oth­er places and lan­guages as well.

For an expe­ri­ence that com­bines, how­ev­er, the best of ancient wis­dom and mod­ern infor­ma­tion technology—from both the 19th and the 21st cen­turies—Rougeux’s free, online edi­tion of Byrne’s Euclid can’t be beat. Learn more about the metic­u­lous process of recre­at­ing Byrne’s text and dia­grams (illus­trat­ed above) here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Explore an Inter­ac­tive, Online Ver­sion of Werner’s Nomen­cla­ture of Colours, a 200-Year-Old Guide to the Col­ors of the Nat­ur­al World

The Map of Math­e­mat­ics: Ani­ma­tion Shows How All the Dif­fer­ent Fields in Math Fit Togeth­er

Where to Find Free Text­books

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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