Chemistry & Physics

Harrison, William English | Set of Victorian educational manuscripts on science and natural history

  • A nice set of manuscripts on science, natural history, and astronomy copied into standardised blank books by William English Harrison, three of which are dated to 1857 and 1858. There is also a smaller book containing a transcription of Robert Dodlsey’s The Oeconomy of Human Life. Harrison was born in 1843, making him around 15 when these texts were produced, probably as part of his education. He lived in Hertfordshire, was appointed King’s Counsel, and married and had five children, but little other information is available about his life.

    The contents of these manuscripts are most likely copied from standard Victorian texts, though we have not been able to identify them.

    The two natural history volumes are largely on the taxonomic division of living creatures, beginning with the preface, “Although many works have been written on this subject, no book combines the details with good classification. The system of classification is copied from that of the British Museum, which is most assuredly the best that can be adopted. Nearly every animal has found its place in this work...” The text itself opens by stating that “At the head of creation is man. As his intellect surpasses the instinct so does his bodily form surpass that of animals”. It goes on to delineate and describe the species within the families of apes and monkeys, bats, cats (opening with “at the head of wild animals stands the lion”), canines, bears and racoons, moles, marsupials, seals, whales, and rodents. The text ends a number of pages into the second blank book (and is lacking a significant number of animal families!) so it seems that this effort at copying ended prematurely.

    One of the volumes covers the science of electricity, again copied from an unidentified text. It begins, “the science of electricity forms such a large and important branch of Natural Philosophy and to treat of it fully would require whole treatises. It is proposed then, to give the facts and theories of the most important parts. The principal object will be to direct more especial attention to those parts of this subject, which are principally used for direct practical purposes”. The text discusses the key aspects of electro-magnetism such as conductivity, generation and storage of electricity, electric fields, polarisation, and magnetism through the description of experiments, many of which are illustrated by diagrams.

    The final two volumes cover astronomy. The first seems to be only some of the astronomical contents of a volume titled “The Elements of Natural Philosophy”, which begins with a general introduction on the practice of science: “The varied phenomena of nature, which are constantly developed before our eye, both in the gigantic space around, and on our own small globe offer sublime and startling a view of our spectacle, that the curiosity of the most listless observer becomes so powerfully excited...” The book’s contents list has been copied, as well, showing that the volume also covered statics, mechanics, geology, electricity and magnetism, optics, and other subjects. It’s possible, by no means certain, that the above text on electricity was taken from the same volume. The rest of the text covers the solar system, principally the relationship between the Sun, Earth and Moon, including eclipses and Moon phases, and the appearance of the Sun and other solar system bodies, including sunspots, the craters of the Moon, phases of Venus, and appearance of Jupiter through a telescope. Many, if not all, of the illustrations from the original book have been delightfully copied over to accompany the relevant text.

    The second astronomical volume is titled “Recreations in Astronomy”. It seems to be transcribed from a different text, starting with “chapter 1” and goes into more detail on both the solar system and stars outside it. This manuscript also includes numerous illustrations, including a very elaborate one of the solar system out to Uranus, and features on the surface of the Moon. Of particular interest is a table giving distances within the solar system, including the annual revolutions and velocity of each planet and moon, and there is detailed covering parallax and distance measurements in space. The manuscript ends with a descriptive list of comets observed from 371 BCE through to 1237 CE.

  • 5 volumes, duodecimo (223 x 182 mm), 60 leaves each. Original black and dark brown half skiver, marbled boards and edges, white and light blue paper ruled in darker blue. The two natural history volumes with autograph titles on the covers. Together with a single volume in octavo (162 x 98 mm) 38 leaves, unicorn watermark. Marbled boards. In total, approximately 742 pages with significant manuscript content in a neat, juvenile hand, including both pastedowns of one volume. Numerous drawings, particularly in the astronomical volumes. Some of these are tipped-in on light blue laid paper. The five larger volumes are rubbed and have wear to the extremities, particularly the spines and corners, with the spine of the “Recreations in Astronomy” volume almost entirely lacking, the contents a little shaken, and the final leaf missing. That of the electricity volume with two large chips. Rear pastedown lacking from the “Elements of Natural Philosophy” volume. Overall the set is in very good condition.