Making of Byrne’s Euclid

Making of Byrne’s Euclid | Article | Abakcus
Image Credit: Photo by Laura Staugaitis on Colossal

Creating a faithful online reproduction of a book considered one of the most beautiful and unusual publications ever published is a daunting task. Byrne’s Euclid is my tribute to Oliver Byrne’s most celebrated publication from 1847 that illustrated the geometric principles established in Euclid’s original Elements from 300 BC.

Euclid’s Elements is a collection of 13 books attributed to Greek mathematician Euclid circa 300 BC and laid the foundation for geometry, number theory, and many core concepts of math and logic still used today. For centuries, the original manuscript and some copied editions were circulated but it wasn’t until shortly after the invention of the printing press in 1440 that it was more widely reproduced starting in 1482.

In 1847, Irish mathematics professor Oliver Byrne worked closely with publisher William Pickering in London to publish his unique edition titled 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—or more simply, Byrne’s Euclid. Byrne’s edition was one of the first multicolor printed books and is known for its unique take on Euclid’s original work using colorful illustrations rather than letters when referring to diagrams. The precise use of colors and diagrams meant that the book was very challenging and expensive to reproduce. Little is known about why Byrne only designed 6 of the 13 books but it was could have been due to time and cost involved.

euclid first byrne
Geometric proof of the pythagorean theorem from the first printed edition in 1482 (bottom left), Byrne’s colorful rendition in 1847 (right)
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Scans of first eight propositions from Byrne’s Euclid

Byrne’s work was largely ignored and criticized at the time of publication but it has gained renewed interest in recent years in part due to a mention from Edward Tufte in Envisioning Information and a reproduction by Taschen.

A much more in-depth history of Byrne and his edition of Euclid’s Elements can be found on the Mathematical Association of America’s site by Susan Hawes and Sid Kolpas: Oliver Byrne: The Matisse of Mathematics.


I can’t recall when I first learned of Byrne’s edition but it was likely from Tufte or seeing Taschen in passing. Like others, I was drawn to its beautiful diagrams and typography and I’ve long enjoyed looking through the online scans. With the recent success of my reproduction Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours, I had a renewed interest in doing something to pay tribute to it.

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