Rare Scientific Books

Terry Hurley
daVinci Invention

It is important to decide what area of science interests you most when collecting rare scientific books because the field is so vast. Don't forget that books about technology and mathematics are in this category in addition to such obvious choices as physics and chemistry. While many collectors limit there collections by a specific set of criteria, others tend to add to their collections on a general basis often cross-collecting books based on their general interests.

Collecting Rare Scientific Books

When collecting rare books in scientific fields, many collectors limit their purchases by:

  • Historical Period
  • Scientist
  • Subcategory

Collecting By Historical Period

Collectors of rare scientific books might begin by buying in a specific historical era they find interesting.

The Scientific Revolution

One important period in the history of science is from about the sixteenth century to the eighteenth century known as The Scientific Revolution. The Age of Reason, notorious for a rational approach to the world, grew from this period.

There are rare scientific books available with wood engravings from the 1600s by the German scientist Johannes Kepler, famous for his laws of planetary motion. It might be easier to find first editions by Galileo Galilei, who observed the moons around Jupiter, in rare bookstores in Italy. Scientific books by these early pioneers of astronomy might also be of interest to collectors of mathematics, physics and optics.

  • Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, or Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica by Sir Isaac Newton. English translations published during Newton's lifetime are available of this important scientific book.

The Industrial Revolution

Another period to collect rare scientific books from is the Industrial Revolution where the steam engine became important to industrial growth.

  • A Short Treatise on the Application of Steam, Whereby is Clearly Shewn, from Actual Experiments, that Steam May be Applied to Propel Boats or Vessels of Any Burthen Against Rapid Currents with Great Velocity by James Rumsey. An early inventor of the steamboat published this book in 1788.

There are also scarce technical pamphlets associated with inventions that are highly sought after.

  • James Watt Company copy machine instruction manuals and trade catalogs. James Watt, the Scottish inventor, was an early developer of the steam engine and also created a copy machine.

Collecting By Scientist

Another way to collect rare scientific books is by the scientists who wrote them.

Single Scientist

You could limit yourself to rare scientific books by a single scientist which could include scholarly articles published in scientific journals.

  • Experiments and Observations on Electricity, Made at Philadelphia in America by Benjamin Franklin. A collection of his writings was published in 1774.

Related Scientists

Marie Curie, the Polish-born French chemist known for her studies of radioactivity, won two Pulitzer Prizes. After collecting everything written by her, you could go on to other famous women scientists.

  • Wayside and Woodland Fungi by W.P.K. Findlay, Illustrated by Beatrix Potter. Helen Beatrix Potter, the children's author of the Peter Rabbit books, was also a mycologist. She made many botanical paintings and wrote scientific papers about fungi such as On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae that was presented at the Linnean Society of London in 1897. Her work should definitely be investigated for those specifically interested in women scientists.

Another option is to purchase rare scientific books by other Pulitzer Prize scientists.

  • Relativity: The Special and General Theory by Albert Einstein. Even the first edition in English from 1920, translated by Robert W. Lawson, is clearly a rare scientific book.

Collecting By Subcategory

A smaller subcategory may also be more manageable. Alchemy, for instance, could be considered a division of chemistry. The transformation of lesser metals into gold used to be a serious scientific endeavor that even Isaac Newton studied. You could start with newer books then work your way back to primary sources referenced in them. Doing so, you could discover how a book used mistaken information from a previous source. Armed with this knowledge, you'll be well on your way to becoming an expert collector in the field.

Where to Find Rare Scientific Books Online

  • Calix Books offers many rare books covering the many different aspects of science including The Origine of Formes and Qualities by Robert Boyle, The Theory Of The Earth by Thomas Burnet and Praelectiones Academicae Publicae in Physicam Theoreticam by Wolfgang Krafft.
  • Jeremy Norman's History of Science offers rare books on the subjects of history of science, medicine and technology including a presentation copy of The Origin of Man by Charles Darwin, The Beginning of Electronics by John Ambrose Fleming and Lectures of the Morbid Anatomy of the Serous and Mucous Membranes by Thomas Hodgkin.
  • Abe Books has a large number of scientific books listed in their rare book category including A Handbook for the Humanistic Astrologer by Michael R. Meyer, Law in the Scientific Age by E.D. Patterson and An Illustrated Alphabet of the Sciences by Scientific American.
  • Books Tell You Why offers several hundred rare books in various scientific areas such as a cloth first edition/first printing of The Art of Taxidermy by John Rowley, first edition/first printing of Physics of the Impossible by Michio Kaku and a signed first edition/first printing of The God Delusion by Richard. Dawkins
  • Bauman Rare Books includes a section of scientific books such as Report on the Scientific Results of the Voyage of H.M.S. Challenger by C. Wyville Thomson, Advance of Science in the Last Half Century by Thomas Henry Huxley and Principles of Scientific Management by Frederick Winslow Taylor.

The Dibner Library's Rare Scientific Books

A great place to visit to learn more about rare scientific books is the section of the Smithsonian Institution called The Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology. Bern Dibner was a famous rare book collector who wrote Heralds of Science, a book about his collection of the 200 most important scientific books grouped into eleven categories. You can visit the museum library containing his collection or the online exhibit based on his book.

Rare Scientific Books