Physics Illustrations: Lit

You may think that my book is just a boring old Physics book; however, there is actually something quite exciting about it.  Sure there is a lot of text, as every book has, but my book also has illustrations. These illustrations are so important for two reasons.  Firstly, they are important given the nature of the book.  Much of my author, Thomas Young’s, study was in the field of optics. Like I said in earlier blog posts, the field of optics was probably the most important of the time.  However, the illustrations in my book are also important as they are in color, and given their age, are most likely engravings that were hand-painted.

These illustrations play a very obvious role.  However, I wont lie, as a physics major, they are a little entertaining to look at.  Whenever we look at light now, in laboratory or in class, we are always dealing specific flashes of photons getting released.  It really is quite boring stuff.  The illustrations in this book, on the other hand, seem fun and exciting!  I believe they give us an insight into exploratory nature of physics back then.  I took a picture of my favorite one and attached it below.


While now we only think about light as a measurable quantities of energy, they were interested in the color of light.  What a cool experiment it would have been to create new colors by putting some colors on a wheel and spinning it really fast. That is the scientific method that is being described by the color wheels seen in the picture.

What initially struck me the most about the illustrations are where they are located in the book.  They are not integrated within the book, but rather all situated at the end of the book.  Beside them they have page long “plate” descriptions.  I’m no genius but I just cant justify that unless it was out of necessity.  It’s just so inefficient.  I wasn’t sure why the printer would want to make the audience read something, then have to flip all the way to the end of the book look at it.  After researching with special collections of the Colby College Library, I learned this was actually for a very good reason.


The way people would print illustrations back then was actually a fairly complicated process.  They would outsource the job to an artist.   Because my book was printed in 1807, the artist in this scenario would do engravings.  He or She would then hand carve the engravings.  Also, the pages would have to be made from a different material.  The pages with illustrations on them are much thicker and are not double sided.  This is another signifier of engravings.  Because the book was catered to a more refined audience, and was not intended to be sold as mass copies to the public, I suspect the illustrations were made from copper engravings.  This would explain why the illustrations are all located at the end of the book on pages much thicker than those with text.  Some of the pages are cut at different lengths as well.  It was a fairly unstandardized and complicated process.  That is why the illustrations stand out so much from the rest of the book.


We also know who the artist was.  In the bottom right of the illustrated pages we see the signature of “Joseph Skelton” .  This is followed by the word “sculp.” which is most likely an abbreviation of the word sculptor.  Skelton would have been that artist that also painted the images by hand.  This was the standard system that was in place for hundreds of years at the time.  It is called intaglio printing.   Usually, engraved illustrations were done on wood.  After all, it was cheaper, more malleable, and more efficient if catering to a larger audience.  However, because my book was not cheap, and certainly was not meant to cater to a large audience, I don’t suspect there is any reason to believe these are not copper engravings, or something of the sort.