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Oliver Byrne: The Matisse of Mathematics - Biography 1810-1829

Susan M. Hawes (Genealogist) and Sid Kolpas (Delaware County Community College)


An innovator in mathematics education, particularly in the teaching of geometry, Irish-born Oliver Byrne (1810-1880) lived in England and the United States at a time of prejudice against the Irish. Byrne faced physical and financial hardship and ridicule from his contemporaries for his mathematical and pedagogical innovations. His wife, Eleanor Rugg Byrne, published articles and books in meteorology at a time when women were discouraged from scientific and mathematical pursuits. This most comprehensive biography of Oliver Byrne to date discusses both Oliver's and Eleanor's accomplishments and highlights Oliver’s pedagogical philosophy, emphasizing his most innovative, famous, and visually stunning mathematical work on Euclidean geometry, 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. Finally, we will discuss how Byrne's Euclid, and his pedagogical views, might be used in geometry, mathematics education, and mathematics history classes.

Figure 1. Lithograph of Oliver Byrne (from the original in the collection of Gerald L. Alexanderson, Michael and Elizabeth Valeriote Professor in Science at Santa Clara University). The caption reads as follows:



Author of

“The New and Improved System of Logarithms.”_“The Doctrine of Proportion.”_“The Practical,
Complete, and Correct Gager.”_“The Elements of Euclid by Colours.”_“A Practical,
Treatise on Spherical Trigonometry.”_“How to Measure the Length of a
Degree on the Earth's Surface by the assistance of Railroads."
&c., _&c.,_&c.

Inventor of

“The Patent Calculating Instruments.”~“The System of Facilitating the Acquirement of Geometry, &
of other Linear Arts and Sciences by Colours, &c.”~“Proposer of the New Theory of
the Earth, which accounts for many Astronomical, Geographical, and
Geological Phenomena, hitherto unaccounted for.”

Biography of Oliver Byrne (1810-1880): Overview and 1810-1829

Mathematician, educator and civil engineer Oliver Byrne was born on 31 July 1810 in the copper mining village of Vale of Avoca in County Wicklow, Ireland, 40 miles south of Dublin.1 The son of Lawrence Oliver Byrne and Mary Byrne, Oliver Byrne had at least one brother and two sisters. His brother, John Byrne, two years younger than Oliver, edited a collection of his older brother’s mathematical works and co-authored at least one book with him.2 By 1839 Oliver Byrne was the “principal support of an aged mother and sisters in Ireland.”3 Married to Eleanor Rugg in England in 1845, Oliver Byrne died on 9 December 1880 and was buried at Maidstone, Kent, England.4 Eleanor died on 12 June 1897.5 The couple had no children.6

Byrne's aptitude and passion for mathematics may have resulted from studying engineering. Although his obituary states that he “entered at Trinity College, Dublin, where he passed with distinction the various examinations,” it appears unlikely that Byrne graduated from or even matriculated at Trinity.7 He was not identified as “Oliver Byrne, B.A.” as were his degreed peers. Although some of his papers are in its archives and he was considered a Dublin native, Trinity College in Dublin has no record of Oliver Byrne.8 Some of his contemporaries, such as mathematician George Boole (1815-1864), were self-taught.9 Byrne may have been self-taught or apprenticed.

1 Oliver Byrne, application (6 January 1858), case number 987, vol. 31, Archives of Royal Literary Fund, London; Nineteenth Century Collections Online: "British Theatre, Music, and Literature: High and Popular Culture" Collection; Gale Digital Collections ( : accessed 8 August 2014). Hereinafter, Byrne’s Royal Literary Fund applications will be referred to with “RLF application” followed by the date of application. All of Oliver Byrne’s RLF applications are case number 987. Newspaper clippings attached to applications are now out of order; for instance, an 1852 newspaper clipping may be found in an 1842 RLF application. Although Oliver Byrne’s obituary and more than one census records “Holland” or “Leyden” as his birthplace, when he self-reported in his Royal Literary Fund applications, Byrne gave the village of Avoca and County Wicklow, Ireland. Byrne complained of prejudice against the Irish and it is possible that his English wife, Eleanor Byrne, gave the Holland birthplace information. His Kent Messenger and Maidstone Telegraph obituary cited below describes the Byrne family as living in exile after the 1798 Irish Rebellion. Eleanor Byrne's 1881 Royal Literary Fund application lists her husband’s birthplace as “Leyden.” T. N. Schelhaas, Keeper of the Records of the City of Leiden [Netherlands], in a letter to Dr. Sid Kolpas, 24 November 1992, reported that he located no birth record for Oliver Byrne c. 1810. In Byrne’s United States naturalization records cited elsewhere, Byrne renounced "allegiance . . . particularly to the Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, of whom I am a subject."

2 Oliver Byrne and John Byrne, The Fallacies of Our Own Time: Fallacy of Phrenology (London: Sherwood, Gilbert and Piper, 1844).

3 For Oliver Byrne’s father’s name, see “London, England, Marriages and Banns, 1754-1921,” Ancestry ( : accessed 25 July 2014); entry for marriage of Oliver Byrne and Eleanor Rugg (21 July 1845). For his mother’s given name, see Mary Byrne’s obituary in Gentleman’s Magazine, 194:213 (1853). For Byrne’s comment on his dependent mother and sisters, see RLF application (23 November 1839).

4 For marriage see “London, England, Marriages and Banns, 1754-1921,” Ancestry ( : accessed 25 July 2014); entry for marriage of Oliver Byrne and Eleanor Rugg (21 July 1845). For death see General Register Office, Southport, England, Certified Copy Of An Entry Of Death, Oliver Byrne, December 9, 1880. For burial see “Register of burials in the burial ground of the parish of Maidstone, Kent, 1858-1881,” original records housed at the Canterbury Cathedral Archives, Canterbury, Kent; FHL microfilm 1,835,479.

5 General Register Office, Southport, England, Certified Copy Of An Entry Of Death, Eleanor Byrne, 12 June 1897. See also “England & Wales, National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations), 1858-1966,” Eleanor Byrne (12 June 1897); digital images, Ancestry ( : accessed 30 July 2014). Entry, “Byrne, Eleanor of “Rosteague” Reginald-road Maidstone widow died 12 June 1897 Administration (with Will) London 19 July to George Philip Rugg M.D. Effects £89 19s. 1d.

6 RLF application (6 January 1858). “Children None.” See also Principal Probate Registry [London, England], Will in the Estate of the Late Oliver Byrne, “Proved at London 28 February 1881 by the oath of Eleanor Bryne [sic] widow the relict daughter of John Rugg Esquire the sole executrix to whom admin was granted.”

7 “The Late Mr. Oliver Byrne,” Kent Messenger and Maidstone Telegraph (Kent, England), obituary, 18 December 1880 indicates Byrne “was entered at Trinity College, Dublin, where he passed with distinction the various examinations,” clipping, RLF application (3 January 1881).

8 Jane Maxwell (Dublin, Ireland) to Dr. Sid Kolpas, letter, 14 September 1992. Dr. Kolpas contacted Trinity College and Ms. Maxwell reported no record of Oliver Byrne ever attending the college. Nor is Byrne found in the online Alumni Dublinenses, a register of the students, graduates, professors and provosts of Trinity College in the University of Dublin (1593-1860) available at the Trinity College Dublin Library website. In his RLF application (28 May 1842), Byrne listed “Dublin” and the years 1832 and 1833 for his first two publications. For Dublin nativity, see “Repeal in Wicklow,” Freeman’s Journal (Dublin, Ireland), 22 May 1845, which reports “Mr. Oliver Byrne, the distinguished mathematician and engineer from London (he is a native of our town, to which he is an honour; but alas! our gifted countrymen must quit their native shores to seek those distinctions in a foreign clime denied to them at home).”

9 T. A. A. Broadbent, "George Boole (1815-1864)," The Mathematical Gazette (London: G. Bell and Sons, December 1964), 373.

Susan M. Hawes (Genealogist) and Sid Kolpas (Delaware County Community College), "Oliver Byrne: The Matisse of Mathematics - Biography 1810-1829," Convergence (August 2015)