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Oliver Byrne: The Matisse of Mathematics - Biography 1873-1897

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

About 1873 Oliver and Eleanor Byrne moved to Eleanor’s native Maidstone. As Oliver Byrne wrote that year,86

I have met with nothing but difficulties and disappointments during the past year. I am sorry to add that I have received an injury to my right arm; and my right collar bone is dislocated from a cab-accident, which renders it painful for me to write. My wife too has suffered for the last four years from injury to her eyes, supposed to have been caused by the gas explosion which occurred when we lived at Holloway. She has had three operations performed on her eyes by Dr. Vernon at St. Bartholomew's Hospital. These circumstances oblige me to leave my present abode. We are going to Maidstone; where I hope my wife will get some attention and relief at the Kent Ophthalmic Hospital.

This move did not improve the couple’s situation. In 1875, Byrne wrote,87

My wife's prolonged illness, and the coming winter, together with the non-settlement of my publishers as to the sale of my works make me look forward to nothing but distress. Therefore I implore you to excuse my asking once more, through your kindness and consideration to be helped on my way.

Additional applications for aid reflect ongoing illness. In 1878 Byrne wrote,88

I am in great distress and obliged to apply again to the Royal Literary Fund for assistance. I have been ill during last winter and most of the time unable to leave my room. Messrs. Wilkins and Vernon of 9, Castle Street Holborn, printers and publishers failed with my last work in their hands, this rendered my position still worse. My illness and age, combined with the endurance of such disappointments have, of late, prevented me from writing much.

The following year he wrote,89

I have been in great trouble, and distress since last winter, and my circumstances now are so serious that they compel me to apply to your Honorable Committee for kind consideration and help. I have lost friends through death, and some within the present year. I have tried to better my position, but, age with other influences that I was unable to restrain, have conspired in force against all my hard work of fifty years of authorship. I have not been paid according to agreements, which may be due to the pressure of the times. I have written much, and I am still writing, although in feeble health; but, publishers will not undertake anything of mine at present. I have been aided by friends but this help I cannot expect to continue.

Oliver Byrne died on 9 December 1880 of bronchial pneumonia at 46 Grecian Street in East Maidstone, Kent, at the age of 70 years.90 His wife Eleanor survived him by seventeen years.91 She received an 1881 RLF grant as Oliver Byrne’s widow and in 1891 headed her own household while “living on own means” at Ashford St. Mary, Kent.92 She died on 12 June 1897.93

Many of Oliver Byrne’s works, primarily on the topics of Mathematics and Engineering, can be found on Google Books, some in their entirety. Many other of his works are available in reprint. There follows a list, not necessarily comprehensive, of Oliver Byrne’s known books and pamphlets.

Evidenced by his numerous appeals to the Royal Literary Fund in London for financial support between 1839 and 1880, Oliver Byrne’s tumultuous career as author and civil engineer resulted in some successes and many challenges. In his words,94

All of my books, inventions, and important discoveries seem only to lead me into trouble.

In fact, his publications on civil engineering seem to have done quite well and perhaps sustained him during his adult life, while his innovative mathematical/educational publications did poorly.

One of these failed books is Byrne's best known publication today, his 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. In the next section, we examine this amazing text in more detail.


86 RLF application (27 November 1873).

87 RLF application (29 November 1875).

88 RLF application (30 June 1879).

89 RLF application (30 June 1879).

90 General Register Office, Southport, England, Certified Copy Of An Entry Of Death, Oliver Byrne, December 9, 1880. See also Oliver Byrne, obituary; The Times (London), 16 December 1880, p. 10, col. 3.

91 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 (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 30 July 2014).

92 “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). See also "A Lady and Her Lost Money," North-Eastern Gazette (Middlesbrough, England), 11 Jan 1896; transcription in earlier note.

93 General Register Office, Southport, England, Certified Copy Of An Entry Of Death, Eleanor Byrne, 12 June 1897.

94 RLF application (2 November 1872).


Susan M. Hawes (Genealogist) and Sid Kolpas (Delaware County Community College), "Oliver Byrne: The Matisse of Mathematics - Biography 1873-1897," Convergence (September 2015)

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