Thomas Young’s Work; From Textbook to Treasure

Some old books get destroyed, some get outdated, some forgotten.  I think in the context of physics textbooks, once they get outdated they have little value.  Science is only valuable if it is the absolute truth.  However, Thomas Young’s lectures have found a sweet middle ground.  They are not at the foreground of scientific discovery, after all, it has been 200 years.  However, they have certainly not been forgotten- and much of what he wrote is still valuable to the physics community.


While current academics may not hold the science in the textbook in the most venerable light, the book is a testament to the heart and passion of physicists everywhere.  The first thing that points to this is the shear volume of the book.  My word, what kind of person writes 1400 pages just about physics.  It takes a level passion that is seen in almost no one.  Secondly, after examining the condition of the book, it is clear that it has been cared about.  The pages are not written on, damaged, ripped, or even torn or folded.  That could be a sign of two things I guess.  Either it simply was never used or looked at, or what I think is more likely, it was used and respected.  After doing all this research on the book, the author, and the time in which it was produced it is clear that Thomas Young was kind of a big deal.  He wasn’t Isaac Newton, but he was in the same circles working together to discover the nature of the world around them.


To my knowledge, this book has not been adapted or revised, but only republished in 1845.  It was even digitized in 2011.  I think this means that not only was it not necessary to be changed, but it is also probable that demand for it grew, causing them to republish it.  Even today, it is available.  I think it is curious, it is available in three different mediums. Well, sort of.  One can buy an originally printed copy for around $3,000, a standard edition for $24 from Wal-Mart, or one can access the digital copy from  I believe this fact goes to show that it is still in demand, not only because of its value back then, but because of its functionality now.


While browsing around different digitized copies of the book, I discovered another interesting factoid.  The edition that resides at University of California Berkeley has been checked out nearly 10 times since 1990.  I am curious as to the nature of those lendings.  Are students learning the physics inside the book, or studying strictly the book itself, like I am.  Regardless, this speaks to the legacy of the book.  Maybe its legacy is important for both reason.  It is a scientifically important book, and a physical historic artifact.  And that begs the question, when did it make the transition from a cutting-edge physics textbook to a piece of valued history.  I think it is safe to say that it happened after its second publication in 1845.


To learn more about this, I did research with Colby College’s Special Collections librarians.  From looking at the book stamp on the cover page we know Colby acquired the book before 1860.  That really surprised me.  There is a signature in the beginning of the book that reads Queens College Oxford, 1829.  Now, we have to match that up with the fact that the book was republished in 1845.  If Colby wanted the textbook, and it was after 1845, why would we get a used one from a student all the way in Oxford?  I’m guessing that at some point between 1830 and 1850, this exact copy of the book made it over from England to Waterville College, not as a special or rare book, but as a physics textbook.  From there I believe it lasted as a standard book until around 1939.  Colby placed a dated stamp on the book dated May 22, 1939.  While the Librarian cannot be positive as to what that is, I think it is not a bad bet to believe that was when Colby decided this was no longer a textbook, but a piece of history.