Don’t Judge a Physics Textbook By Its Cover

The book I chose to analyze this semester is an old physics reference book from 1807 titled A Course of Lectures on Natural Philosophy and the Mechanical Arts.  Thomas Young MD wrote the book, and dedicated it to Thomas Grenville.   Judging by the physical characteristics of the book, its intended use was not to be read cover-to-cover, but rather to be used as a reference guide by an organization, student, or professional who needed knowledge about physical science. This can be seen from the pages it was printed on, the binding, the illustrations, and the organizational set-up of the book.

I picked this book for a number of reasons, mostly having to do with my current academic interests. As a physics major, not only do I enjoy learning about the science, but I also really enjoy learning about the history of the discipline.  When I came across this book, it really spoke to me on both of those levels.  It is really exciting that I now get to apply a third intellectually analytical lens- learning about the physical book itself, and how that physical form effects the content and purpose of the book.

First, I’d like to set the stage for the book. The book was written in 1807, so yeah, its old. The significant scientific debate around that time period was all about light.  Was it a light or a particle?  They simply did not know, and frankly, I still don’t even think we know.  Sir Isaac Newton, at the forefront of physics discoveries, deemed that light was a particle.  However, Thomas Young, the author of my book, proved through a daunting experiment, that light actually behaved like a wave.  This was a big deal.  That was in 1803, so now, alas is born my pet book.  The text book that explains how light can be a wave. A glorious 795 pages, and thats only in volume 1.   Thomas Young, MD was a man of man talents.  He was a prodigy pianist, he was an expert on Egyptian history, he was a scholar of greek and latin.  An esteemed scholar should have his work presented in only the best of manners. So, lets explore his work, his Course of Lectures on Natural Philosophies and Mechanical Arts.

The pages of the book are handmade, with gridded printing lines visible when you hold a light up to it. Also, some pages contain a watermark that must read the date when the pages were created, namely 1806. The pages are very sturdy, and contain almost no wear and tear even though the book is over 200 years old. This adds to the notion of the functionality of the book- the owner was intended to flip through it every so often. Its margins are roughly are roughly two inches side-to-side and three inches on the top and bottom. These are margins are fairly large for two possible reasons. Firstly, large margins make complicated text easier to read by putting fewer words on the page, thus slowing the reader down. Secondly, large margins allow the reader to take notes in the empty space. The second option is more likely the cause for these wide margins in this scenario. After looking at books in our Special Collection, it’s apparent that note taking was fairly prevalent among educational books. Because the book I’m analyzing is sort of like a textbook, it should not be uncommon for notes to appear here and there. However, scribbles in margins are extremely rare. This points to the books purpose as, not a worn down page turner, but rather, a reference book used only when necessary.

This book has beautiful illustrations- located in the back of the book. These illustrations are scientific diagrams referenced throughout the text. This book is unique in the fact that not only does it have reference illustrations; some of them are in fact painted in color. These pictures are printed on different paper than the text is- this could be due to the fact that they outsourced the artwork. On each illustration page lays a signature, “Joseph Skelton Sculp.” This is most likely the artist of said illustrations. Thinking further about this, I’m curious as to why the illustrations sit apart from the text, rather than being embedded in the text. I am hypothesizing that this is due to whomever was binding the book together, running into technological barriers given the binding and printing technology of the time.