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Oliver Byrne: The Matisse of Mathematics - Biography 1840-1849

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

In the fall of 1840, the Philanthropic Life Assurance Annuity & Endowment Society of London, listing Oliver Byrne, Consulting Actuary, sought incorporation by an Act of Parliament.30 Soon after, Byrne defended the organization in a “Letter to the Editor” labeled as “(Advertisement)” by the newspaper.31 Little further mention is made of the company until years later when an inquiry to the Philanthropic Life Assurance Society had no record of Mrs. Mary Hodges. The Birmingham Police Court alleged Henry Lewis conned Mrs. Hodges by taking her believed Philanthropic Life Assurance Society entrance money two years prior.32

About 1842, Oliver Byrne and Henry William Hull (B.A., C.E.) proposed a School of Mathematics, Engineering, Classics, and General Literature at Surrey Villa, near Lambeth Palace in London.33 The intent of the school was to provide practical lessons in Mathematics and Engineering using surveying equipment. Byrne's and Hull's prospectus states, “The chief object in the Institution will be, as much as possible, to combine practical illustrations with theoretical instruction.”34 There is no evidence that the school was ever established.

Figure 4. Title page of Byrne’s and Hull’s proposal for a school, c. 1842. © The British Library Board, 8365.b.48.(1.).

In 1844, Byrne and his brother John published The Fallacies of Our Own Time: Fallacy of Phrenology.35 Phrenology, based on measurements of the human skull in order to determine traits such as intelligence, is today considered a pseudoscience.36 In their book, the Byrne brothers espoused their own philosophy, writing37

. . . the academic youth not only learn that the true equation of this life is, (Industry + Economy) x Virtue = Happiness: but, also, that ‘knowledge is the wing on which we fly to Heaven.’

During the same period, Byrne traveled to Ireland:38

Professor Oliver Byrne, of London, passed through Mulingar [County Westmeath, Ireland] last week. He is examining the capabilities of the Royal Canal to construct a railway . . . between Dublin and Galway.

Between 1843 and 1847, articles by Byrne regularly appeared in London’s Civil Engineer and Architect's Journal. Only a portion of these articles are reprinted in the 1848 Miscellaneous Mathematical Papers of Oliver Byrne, Part I, edited by John Byrne. For a more complete list of articles, see Janet Heine Barnett’s “Mathematics is a Plural Noun: The Case of Oliver Byrne,” Proceedings of the Canadian Society for the History and Philosophy of Mathematics: Thirty-fifth Annual Meeting (Montreal), 23: 26-46 (2010).

Byrne married Eleanor Rugg (1822-1897), a native of Loose (near Maidstone), Kent, England in 1845.39 (Maidstone is 40 miles east-southeast of London.) According to David Bryden, a scholar of Georgian scientific instruments, Oliver Byrne “engaged in several railway projects,” including the South Midland Junction Railway and the Tring, Cambridge and Newmarket Railway.40 Bryden wrote, “During the early years of the railway boom [Oliver Byrne] was responsible for the forward planning of several proposed routes, and he undertook other practical consultancy work.”41 In one anecdote,

a raw Irishman, named Oliver Byrne, who was engineer of a proposed line that was opposed by the Duke of Buckingham, describing how, after ‘numerous affrays took place between his chainmen and assistant surveyors and the Dukes’ posse,

had the clever idea of using ladders to obtain the necessary survey data during the night without setting foot on the Duke’s estate.42

Byrne acquired expensive engineering equipment and when one of the railways failed, he was sued and lost 75£.43 Later he lamented, “I attribute all of my present difficulties to my having been engaged as Engineer to several Railway companies in the year 1845.”44 (To read this lament in Byrne's own hand, see the second sentence of the first letter in Figure 5, below.)

Figure 5. Oliver Byrne's letter of application to the Royal Literary Fund, dated 25 November 1848, followed by his letter of thanks, dated 15 December 1848, for the £20 granted him. (Archives of Royal Literary Fund, London, via Nineteenth Century Collections Online: "British Theatre, Music, and Literature: High and Popular Culture" Collection, Gale Digital Collections http://www.galegroup.com)

Soon after his marriage, Byrne received an appointment as “Her Majesty’s [Queen Victoria] Settlement Surveyor” in the Falkland Islands.45 To repay the money lost on the railway, Byrne reported in 1848 that he was46

compelled to deliver up in court the copyrights of very valuable books, [including] that of my ‘Euclid by Colours.’ Everything I possessed being thus taken from me, I resigned the government appointment [as Falkland Islands surveyor], for want of means to procure an outfit and the passage money.

For this passage in Byrne's own hand, see the first letter in Figure 5, above, which indicates also that he was "prevented from leaving this Country" for the Falkland Islands. Nevertheless, the title page of his 1847 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 indicates “Surveyor Of Her Majesty's Settlements in the Falkland Islands.” Byrne may have worked in some civil service capacity, as his widow collected a civil service pension.47 Byrne's Euclid in ... Coloured Diagrams (1847) will be discussed in more detail in a later section of this article.

By 1849, Byrne and his wife Eleanor had left London and moved to New York City, presumably, like many other immigrants, to improve their lives. Or, perhaps career pressures or the failed 1848 Irish nationalist uprising demanded the move.48 Not long after his arrival, Byrne filed his intent to become a naturalized United States citizen.49 Over the next decade Byrne and his wife spent time in New York City, Philadelphia, and Jersey City, New Jersey.50

The Irish newspaper, Cork Examiner, announced the May 1849 arrival in New York of brothers Oliver and John Byrne in an article titled, “The Exiled Patriots.” The article claimed the men “although not heralded by any special political reputations, have been welcomed by all who desire to see Irish talent and virtue enjoy a proper sphere.”51 John Byrne died two years later. According to Oliver Byrne’s 1853 dedication in The American Engineer, Draftsman, and Machinist’s Assistant, his brother, John O’Byrne “was born in Wicklow, Ireland, on the 27th of May, 1812, and died in New York on the 6th of April, 1851.”52

Later that year, the Irish nationalist weekly newspaper, The Nation, also acknowledged Oliver Byrne’s move to the United States:53

[Oliver Byrne] after a career of continued success for twenty years in Europe—after passing through every scientific ordeal, as author, inventor and professor; at one time laying down a railway through Duke of Buckingham's demesne [manor], while guarded night and day; at another, a ship building for Mehemet Ali in Egypt; exposing consistently the over-weening scientific pretensions of England, while teacher of the Prime Minister's family; an avowed chartist, yet ‘surveyor-general of the Falkland Islands’—after all these tests and trials, Mr. Byrne, in his vigorous middle age, has begun a fresh career of activity in New York. The Messrs. Appleton have already announced a great work under his editorship, viz. ‘A Dictionary of Machines, Mechanics, Engine-Work, and Engineering;’ to contain 2,000 ‘royal octavo pages,’ and ‘1,500 plates.’


30 "Philanthropic Life Assurance Annuity and Endowment Society . . . to be Incorporated by Act of Parliament,” Northern Liberator and Champion (Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, England), 26 September 1840, p. 1, col. 5. The company's address at the time was 432 West Strand, London.

31 “Letter to the Editor,” The Morning Post (London), Thursday, November 26, 1840, p. 6, col. 3.

32 Aris's Birmingham Gazette (Birmingham, England), 15 June 1857, p. 4, col. 6.

33 “Exemplary Institute for Mathematics, Engineering, Classics and General Literature, Surrey Villa, near Lambeth Palace,” advertisement, The Times (London), 19 November 1842, p. 1. col. 3.

34 Oliver Byrne and Henry William Hull, "Institute for Mathematics, Engineering, Classics and General Literature, Surrey Villa, near Lambeth Palace," school prospectus (London: Barnes, c. 1842), 8 pp.; photocopy privately held by Dr. Sid Kolpas, 2014.

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

36 Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man (New York: W.W. Norton, 1981).

37 Oliver Byrne and John Byrne, The Fallacies of Our Own Time: Fallacy of Phrenology (London: Sherwood, Gilbert and Piper, 1844), 79.

38 “Ireland,” The Morning Post (London), 25 November 1844, p. 1, col. 6.

39 “London, England, Marriages and Banns, 1754-1921,” Ancestry (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 25 July 2014); entry for marriage of Oliver Byrne and Eleanor Rugg (21 July 1845). For Eleanor Rugg’s nativity see Eleanor Rugg (29 Oct 1822), daughter of John and Elizabeth Rugg, "England, Kent, Parish Registers, 1538-1911," index and images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org : accessed 18 March 2015); citing Christening, Loose, Kent, England, Kent Archives Office, Maidstone; FHL microfilm 1,473,735. See also “1891 England Census,” [county] Kent, [parish] Ashford St. Mary, enumeration district 5, folio 62, line 10, Eleanor Byrne; digital images, Ancestry (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 30 July 2014).

40 “Court of Exchequer,” The Times (London), 16 January 1846, p. 7, col. 6. See also "Court of Exchequer," The Times (London), 3 June 1846, p. 8, col. 3. Byrne engaged with the South Midland Junction. Also acting engineer for Tring, Cambridge and Newmarket Railway Company, The Times (London), 8 October 1845, p. 1, col 3. For Midland see “Midland Junction Railway; extending from the town of Reading, Berkshire, to the station at Blisworth, Northamptonshire,” deposited November 1845; catalog description, “An exceptionally crude series of plans, some marked 'Proof', on which the basic survey lines are lithographed . . . each signed 'Oliver Byrne Engineer’"; The National Archives (http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk : accessed 18 August 2015).

41 David J. Bryden (Worcestershire, England) to Sue Hawes (Portland, Maine), "Oliver Byrne," e-mail, 17 December 2014, Byrne Research Files; privately held by Sue Hawes, Portland, Maine.

42 John Kersley Fowler, Echoes of Old County Life: Being Recollections of Sports, Politics, and Farming in the Good Old Times. (London: E. Arnold, 1892), 153-154.

43 “Court of Exchequer,” The Times (London), 16 January 1846, p. 7, col. 6. See also "Court of Exchequer," The Times (London), 3 June 1846, p. 8, col. 3.

44 RLF application (25 November 1848). See Figure 5, above.

45 The Times (London), 29 Aug 1846, p. 3, col. 5. See also Sylvanus Urban, Gentleman’s Magazine (London: Nichols and Son, 1846).

46 RLF application (25 November 1848). See Figure 5, above.

47 "A Lady and Her Lost Money," North-Eastern Gazette (Middlesbrough, England), 11 Jan 1896; "19th Century British Newspapers," Gale Cengage Learning (http://www.galegroup.com : accessed 4 April 2015). The year before Eleanor Rugg Byrne died, "A Lady & Her Lost Money: The Maidstone Guardians [Kent, England] have been informed that a lady possessing £73 was in the workhouse. The Relieving Officer had found her destitute near Paddock Wood owing to losing large sums of money in the vicinity, but the police subsequently recovered £73. The lady was understood to be the widow of the well-known mathematician, Oliver Byrne, in receipt of a Civil Service pension of £50, and possessing small private means. It was decided to communicate with the lady's friends."

48 For discussion of career pressures see Janet Heine Barnett, “Mathematics is a Plural Noun: The Case of Oliver Byrne,” Proceedings of the Canadian Society for the History and Philosophy of Mathematics: Thirty-fifth Annual Meeting (Montreal), 23:26-46 (2010). Byrne moved to the United States soon after the failed 1848 Irish Rebellion and subsequently published Irish nationalist militaristic materials cited in this article.

49 “New York, Naturalization Petitions, 1794-1906,” Oliver Byrne, Court of Common Pleas for the City and County of New York, 7 April 1849; digital images, Ancestry (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 7 August 2014); citing Petitions for Naturalization, 1793-1906, Record Group 85, National Archives at New York City, New York, U.S.A.

50 For Philadelphia see “The Collin’s as War Steamers,” Trenton State Gazette, 22 June 1854. For New York see RLF application (6 January 1858). 1850 U.S. Census, New York, New York, Ward 5, population schedule, p. 120 (written), dwelling 532, family 870, Oliver Byrne; Ancestry (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 30 July 2014), citing National Archives Microfilm Publication M432. For Jersey City, see 1860 U.S. census, Hudson County, New Jersey, population schedule, Jersey City, dwelling 111, family 211 (Oliver Byrne); Ancestry (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 28 July 2014) citing Family History Library microfilm 803,693.

51 “The Exiled Patriots,” Cork Examiner (Ireland), 7 May 1849; FindMyPast (http://www.findmypast.com : accessed 21 December 2014), “Last week arrived Messrs. George Duggan (of the Irish Board of works) and Oliver and John Byrne of Dublin; who, although not heralded by any special political reputations, have been welcomed by all who desire to see Irish talent and virtue enjoy a proper sphere. Mr. O. Byrne is already announced to lecture before one of our scientific associations.–New York Correspondent of the Freeman.”

52 Oliver Byrne, The American Engineer, Draftsman, and Machinist’s Assistant (Philadelphia: C.A. Brown & Co., 1853). John Byrne may have had a son. In RLF application (2 November 1872), Oliver Byrne writes, "Married, wife living, no family, reared and educated my brother's son, who is supposed to be lost in the war, as he is missing." Oliver Byrne’s brother John is most often listed as Byrne but occasionally, O’Byrne.

53 "Irish Science," newspaper clipping, The Nation (New York), 10 November 1849; Nineteenth Century Collections Online: "British Politics and Society," Gale Digital Collections (http://www.galegroup.com : 8 August 2014); Oliver Byrne, application, Royal Literary Fund case number 987, Vol. 31, 28 May 1842. For definition of “chartist,” see Oxford English Dictionary; online definition for chartist: “One of the body of political reformers (chiefly of the working classes) who arose in 1837–8, and whose principles were embodied in the document called the ‘People's Charter’ (charter n.1 1d). (The organization came to an end after 1848),” Oxford English Dictionary (http://www.oed.com : accessed 21 June 2015).


Susan M. Hawes (Genealogist) and Sid Kolpas (Delaware County Community College), "Oliver Byrne: The Matisse of Mathematics - Biography 1840-1849," Convergence (August 2015)

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