Euclid Geometry Unique

EUCLID — BYRNE, Oliver. “The first six books of The Elements of Euclid”.

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.



First edition, rare in the original cloth, of this celebrated book, “one of the oddest and most beautiful books of the whole century” (McLean). The use of colour is its most striking feature, with equal angles, lines, or polygonal regions assigned one of the three artistic primaries, red, yellow, and blue.

Byrne (18101880) was a self-educated Irish mathematician and engineer who “considered that it might be easier to learn geometry if colours were substituted for the letters usually used to designate the angles and lines of geometric figures. Instead of referring to, say, ‘angle ABC’, Byrne’s text substitued a blue or yellow or red section equivalent to similarly coloured sections in the theorem’s main diagram” (Friedman). His style remarkably prefigures the modernist experiments of the Bauhaus and De Stijl movements.

Exhibited at the Great Exhibition in London 1851, the book was praised for the beauty and artistry of the printing. However, the selling price of 25 shillings was almost five times the typical price for a Euclidean textbook of the time, placing it out of the reach of educators who were supposed to make use of this new way of teaching geometry. The technical difficulty of keeping the coloured shapes in register greatly increased production costs, and it was consequently never a viable book for cheap mass-production, effectively preventing Byrne’s method from becoming widespread or effecting any major change in the teaching of geometry. Even so, its beauty and innovation ensure it remains among the most desirable of illustrated books from the Victorian period.


Quarto. Original red straight-grain cloth, expertly rebacked preserving the original gilt-blocked spine, covers with ornamental blind panelling, front with gilt tooling, pale yellow endpapers, gilt edges.

Geometric diagrams printed in red, yellow, and blue; printed in Caslon old-face type with ornamental initials by C. Whittingham of Chiswick.

Bookseller’s blindstamp (G. W. Holdich, Hull) to front free endpaper. Extremities gently rubbed, spine darkened, corners and inner hinges professionally restored, foxing and offsetting to contents as usual, the diagrams sharp and bright. A very good copy.

Friedman, Color Printing in England 43; Keynes, Pickering, pp. 37, 65; McLean, Victorian Book Design, p. 70. Susan M. Hawes & Sid Kolpas, “Oliver Byrne: The Matisse of Mathematics”.