oliver byrne

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Helen Friel’s “Here’s Looking at Euclid”

Mathematics is like art; you either understand the concepts (i.e., you ‘get it’), or you become completely lost when coming into contact with them. Some people are able to understand both complex theories and expressions in art, and equations that, for some people, look like a bag of numbers and symbols exploded onto a piece of paper. In 1847, Oliver Byrne, a civil engineer and author, published a book called “Euclid’s Elements” which used coloured graphic explanations of each geometric principle. The style of graphics is similar to that of the Bauhaus and De Stijl movements, but since the book predates each, it could very well have been an inspiration for the creativity of the modernists.

Fast forward to the present, and a new rebirth of this book’s mathematical illustrations is inspiring paper engineer and illustrator Helen Friel to create three-dimensional sculpture replicas of the exact graphics in the book. The artists’ series, entitled “Here’s Looking at Euclid” (2012) uses the instructions found in Byrne’s book to create tangible mathematical theorems in the palm of your hand. Sure, it is a cool sculpture all on its own, but it is also an amazing tool to help teach people these theorems, especially those who are more visual learners and have difficulty concentrating on a page full of numbers.

If you would like to make one of these sculptures yourself, you can download and make your very own paper model of Pythagoras’ Theorem here.

-Anna Paluch

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Byrne’s Euclid–Oliver Byrne, a 19th century engineer, designed this version of Euclid’s Elements, replacing symbols and letters with colored shapes and lines. Not only is it a beautiful feat of graphic design, it also pushes the boundaries of algebraic conventions, revealing the dependence of modern mathematical languages on letters as constructs, rather than necessities. 

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Oliver Byrne, The First Six Books of the Elements of Euclid, 1847.

The book has become the subject of renewed interest for its innovative graphic conception and its style which prefigures the modernist experiments of the Bauhaus and De Stijl movements. 

Read online or PDF via UBC Library.  Photosource book
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I’ve been wanting to do some nails inspired by these beautiful, Mondrian-esque geometric illustrations for a while now.  They’re from mathematician Oliver Byrne’s 1847 edition of The Elements of Euclid (although they look crazy modern).  Today was maybe not the best day to try to tackle them though– my tremor is acting up and this was a super frustrating painting session.  I think I’m about 2/3 satisfied with it?

31DC2014 day 16: geometric

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Almost a century before Mondrian made his iconic red, yellow, and blue geometric compositions, and around the time that Edward Livingston Youmans was creating his stunning chemistry diagrams, an eccentric 19th-century civil engineer and mathematician named Oliver Byrneproduced a striking series of vibrant diagrams in primary colors for a 1847 edition of the legendary Greek mathematical treatise Euclid’s Elements. Byrne, a vehement opponent of pseudoscience with an especial distastephrenology, was early to the insight that great design and graphic elegance can powerfully aid learning. He explained that in his edition of Euclid, “coloured diagrams and symbols are used instead of letters for the greater ease of learners.” The book, a masterpiece of Victorian printing and graphic design long before “graphic design” existed as a discipline, is celebrated as one of the most unusual and most beautiful books of the 19th century.

Byrne Proofs 2/2

Oliver Byrne “The first six books of the Elements of Euclid”, 1847, W. Pickering, London.


The first six books of the Elements of Euclid in which coloured diagrams and symbols are used instead of letters, by Oliver Byrne; 1847; W. Pickering, London. - See more at: http://publicdomainreview.org/collections/the-first-six-books-of-the-elements-of-euclid-1847/#sthash.hvMUuiKp.dpuf
The first six books of the Elements of Euclid in which coloured diagrams and symbols are used instead of letters, by Oliver Byrne; 1847; W. Pickering, London. - See more at: http://publicdomainreview.org/collections/the-first-six-books-of-the-elements-of-euclid-1847/#sthash.hvMUuiKp.dpuf
The first six books of the Elements of Euclid in which coloured diagrams and symbols are used instead of letters, by Oliver Byrne; 1847; W. Pickering, London. - See more at: http://publicdomainreview.org/collections/the-first-six-books-of-the-elements-of-euclid-1847/#sthash.hvMUuiKp.dpuf