Tom Telescope and his Newtonian System of Philosophy regularly feature during special collections events at the Whipple.


Tom Telescope editions from 1797, 1838 and 1827

The text is a digest of natural philosophy presented for a young audience, cast in the form of ‘lectures’ by the eponymous Tom to members of the ‘Lilliputian Society’.

STORE 71:10 (1838), p. [1]
It was issued in a series of 14 editions over 77 years, initiated by the publisher John Newbery (1713-67), who specialised in children’s books, often ingeniously advertised. Newbury’s entrepreneurial spirit is evident in the other item in the Whipple collection from his print shop, namely A course of lectures in natural and experimental philosophy, geography and astronomy… (Reading, 1743) written by instrument maker Benjamin Martin. Adverts for Newbury’s wares, which included books and instruments, turn up on the frontispiece, and on a full-sheet fold-out plate illustrating a pocket reflecting microscope.

All but two editions of Tom Telescope were published beyond John Newbery’s lifetime. The earliest Whipple copy, “A New Improved Edition, with many alterations and additions, to explain the late new Philosophical Discoveries, &c. &c. By William Magnet, F.L.S.”, published in 1798, mentions no fewer than 5 firms on the title page: Ogilvy and Son; Vernor and Hood; J. Walker; Lackington, Allen, and Co.; Darton and Harvey. By 1827, the date of our second copy, Thomas Tegg of Cheapside was listed as a retailer, becoming the sole publisher of the final edition of 1838.

Jim Secord has shown how the content of ‘Tom Telescope’ changes over the course of its published life, reflecting shifts in perceptions of science in different political and historical circumstances.[1] It’s also possible to see across the three Whipple copies how the physical book changes, becoming slightly larger and more substantial in later editions, and illustrated with finer wood engravings as Tom himself grows up.

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[1] James A. Secord, ‘Newton in the Nursery: Tom Telescope and the Philosophy of Tops and Balls, 1761-1838’, History of Science 23 (1985), 127-151.