The Whipple’s current book display features a selection of annotated books from the library of Sir George Howard Darwin, known for his work on the physics of the earth and tidal theory. Among these recent acquisitions is a copy of the first edition of the Treatise on natural philosophy by Sir William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin) and Peter Guthrie Tait, published in two parts in 1867, and affectionately referred to by the authors and others as T&T’.[1]

1- T&T

Division I is signed ‘G.H. Darwin June 25. 1868’ and both parts contain numerous annotations and notes. The provenance of this copy throws light on the history of the T&T’ as a publication. A new edition was published in two parts in 1879 and 1883. The second part was edited, corrected and supplemented by the work of George Darwin, and the Whipple already has a 1912 impression of this edition in its collections.
2- Darwin signature

The “great Book”

Peter Guthrie Tait was considered one of the finest university lecturers of his time and was a prolific writer of treatises and textbooks. As chair of natural philosophy at Edinburgh University from 1860, he recognised the serious need for a textbook to accompany his teaching. Famed mathematical physicist William Thomson, professor of natural philosophy at Glasgow University, offered to collaborate on the project and they set out to produce a work that traced the recent concepts and methods emerging from 19th century physics, and particularly the concept of energy and its properties, back to Newton’s Principia.[2] By January 1862, letters were passing between Thomson and Tait every 2 or 3 days as they sent drafts back and forth in the post. In February, the publishers prepared the title page. However, progress soon slowed. Both authors had numerous other commitments and Thomson in particular found the writing demanding.[3] The scope of the book was constantly changing as the authors developed their thoughts and ideas, and it had clearly grown beyond any elementary textbook. Letters indicate Tait’s growing frustration at the delays in production. In June 1864 he wrote to Thomson “I am getting quite sick of the great Book…” as the difficulties of their irregular and disorganised communication took their toll.[4]

Despite ambitions to produce the first volume in just 6 weeks, it in fact appeared almost 6 years after Tait’s initial outline for the work. Published by Clarendon Press, in association with Macmillan, Volume I of the Treatise on natural philosophy finally appeared in October 1867. Priced at 25s., the two divisions numbered some 750 pages in total.[5] Although hugely influential, and an aid to teaching, the T&T’ that had emerged was not an introductory textbook, but rather a creative and challenging treatise reworking mathematical physics in the context of the 19th century. The sections had been organised as a mixture of ‘large print’ for the non-mathematical reader and ‘small print’ for the more advanced, however the small had gradually overwhelmed the large.[6]

3- Title page part i

The new edition

The first volume of T&T’ was favourably received and sold well, but the delays had caused unusually high expenses, and the authors were told they would be paid nothing for the first edition. In 1875 they sought release from an agreement for a second edition and Tait claimed that they had instead been offered “extraordinarily liberal terms” by Cambridge University Press.[7] The first part of the new and heavily revised edition of the first volume, published by CUP, appeared in 1879, and the second in 1883. Only one of the four volumes promised in the Preface to the first edition was ever written.

The Preface to this new edition notes that “the most important part of the labour of editing Part II, has been borne by Mr G.H. Darwin.” Part II also includes a “schedule of alterations and additions” made for this new edition. A number of these are marked as the work of G.H.D.

4- Schedule of alterations

G.H. Darwin

George Darwin’s involvement was perhaps related to his close friendship with Lord Kelvin. Kelvin had reviewed Darwin’s 1876 paper ‘On the influence of geological changes on the earth’s axis of rotation’ for the Royal Society, and soon after had invited him to Glasgow to discuss its content. A great friendship and working relationship developed between them. In the Preface to his own collection of scientific papers, Darwin attributes a great deal to Kelvin’s friendship and inspiration.[8] In 1883 Darwin took over the role of head of the BAAS tides committee from Kelvin, and became Plumian Professor of Astronomy and Experimental Philosophy at Cambridge. His position as a leading authority on the nature of tides was by then established, and his key contributions to the new edition of T&T’ included an appendix on tidal friction.

Tidal friction appendix2

The copy now in the Whipple is signed June 1868, the year Darwin graduated from Cambridge, and a few months before he was made a fellow of Trinity College.[9] The authorship of the annotations is not certain but they may be Darwin’s. Certain passages seem to have been revised several times. What does appear is an engagement with the text and its reception. The T&T’ was translated into German between 1871 and 1874 by Hermann von Helmholtz and G. Wertheim. Sometime after this, a ‘Preface by Helmholtz to the German Edition’ has been pasted in to the front of Part I of the Whipple’s newly acquired first edition. The first page is handwritten on notepaper, while the remaining text came from Nature (December 24th 1874 & January 14th 1875), where the translated Preface was published.


Annotations can be found throughout the two divisions of the first edition. At sections 829-830 for example, marginalia are accompanied by a leaf of notepaper pasted in. The workings appear to relate to section 829 on the work of Laplace and the compressibility of matter and there are signs of several revisions. Section 830 on tidal friction was “entirely rewritten and extended” by Darwin, and in the new edition it reached some 4½ pages in length. Although the notes are undated, this copy provides an important link between the first and new editions. If in Darwin’s possession from 1868, it also gives an insight into the life of this particular copy: from a landmark university text owned by a student or recent graduate, to a work undergoing revision by a renowned professor and mathematical physicist, finally emerging as a document to notes made before a new edition.

7- 830 insert

[1] Silvanus Phillips Thompson, The life of William Thomson, Baron Kelvin of Largs. Volume I (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011, first published 1910), p.451.

[2] Harold Issadore Sharlin, Lord Kelvin: the dynamic Victorian (University Park; London: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1979), p.150, pp.163-4; Raymond Flood, ‘Thomson and Tait: The Treatise on Natural Philosophy’ in Raymond Flood, Mark McCartney, and Andrew Whitaker (eds.), Kelvin: life, labours and legacy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp.178-81.

[3] Sharlin, p.157, p.161.

[4] P.G. Tait to William Thomson, 20th June. 1864, T6X, ULC, see Crosbie Smith and M. Norton Wise, Energy and empire: a biographical study of Lord Kelvin (Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1989), p.348; Flood, pp.182-3; Thompson, p.467.

[5] Simon Eliot (ed.), The history of Oxford University Press. Volume II (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), p.537.

[6] Thompson, p.469; Smith and Wise, p.352; Flood, pp.179-80.

[7] Eliot, p. 537.

[8] George Howard Darwin, The scientific papers of Sir George Darwin. Volume I (Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2009, first published 1907), p.v.

[9] David Kushner, ‘Darwin, Sir George Howard,’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography,, accessed 31/03/2016.

Clare Matthews, Library Assistant