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New Acquisitions

Selected New Acquisitions 2004

New acquisitions of primary research materials are crucial to the mission of the Dibner Library. Even though the Dibner Library has a rich collection of materials in the history of science and technology, there are significant numbers of items that would add greatly to the research value of the collection. Whether alternate editions of major works, titles by lesser-known authors on important scientific concepts or technologies, books and pamphlets relating to the Smithsonian's collections and research activities, or critical works in the development of new disciplines, all of these are important and interesting to the scholar. To stay a leading research library in the evolving fields of the history of science and technology, the Dibner Library must strive to create such a comprehensive collection of primary resources. The great works of science and technology will be even more valuable to scholars if they are part of a growing collection of all manner of works that encompass the establishment and development of scientific disciplines and practices.

The Special Collections Department is fortunate to have an endowment fund which provides an annual income to allow for the purchase of a few rare books to help our collections grow. We have also benefited from a number of generous gifts-in-kind, from individual books to entire collections. If you are interested in helping us further develop the Smithsonian Institution Libraries' Special Collections, please contact our Development Office.

Highlights from our recent acquisitions are described in detail below. To see selections from previous years, click here:



Archimedes. Opera quae extant
Paris, Claude Morel, 1615. fQA31 .A67 L1615.

Archimedes is widely regarded as the greatest mathematician of ancient Greece. He lived in the Greek city-state of Syracuse on the island of Sicily and became quite famous for his mathematical and engineering skills and not just for running down the street naked shouting “Eureka!” Unfortunately, many of his works did not survive over the centuries and only a handful of them were known to exist by the time the printing press revolution came about. Nevertheless, those few works were enough to resurrect Archimedes’ fame and influence and they had a great impact on the development of the scientific revolution. The Dibner Library has a fine set of the works of Archimedes including the 1543 incomplete works edited by Niccolò Tartaglia, the exceptional 1544 Latin & Greek edition of the Opera, quae quidem extant, omnia edited by Thomas Venatorius, the 1558 Latin edition produced by Federico Commandino, the 1670 German translation by Johann Sturm, and the 1675 Latin edition produced by Isaac Barrow. The obvious missing link here is David Rivault’s important 1615 Latin & Greek edition of the Opera quae extant (printed in Paris by Claude Morel) which was extremely influential as well as being a nicely illustrated work. We now have purchased for the Library a copy of Rivault’s edition, a work that was used by such notable mathematicians as René Descartes (1596–1650) and Pierre de Fermat (1601–1665) and had a major impact on the spread of Archimedes’ ideas in the 17th century. It contains the Greek text with a Latin “trot” running alongside and has extensive exegetical notes. It was still regarded as the best edition in 1670 when Sturm made his translation. Mathematician, courtier as well as man of letters, Rivault (1571–1616) was an intimate of the great classical scholars Causabon and Scaliger. He was tutor to the young Louis XIII but lost his job when he beat the King’s dog for continually interrupting their lessons (good for Louis!).


Galvani, Luigi, 1737-1798. Opere edite ed inedite
Bologna, E. dall'Olmo, 1841. qQC517 .G35 1841.

Luigi Galvani is a major figure in the history of electricity due to his research into what he called “animal electricity” which led to the development of the electric pile, or battery, by Alessandro Volta. Galvani studied comparative anatomy in Bologna and in the 1770s began to do research on the effects of electrical stimulation on the muscles of animals. He had success in getting frogs’ legs to twitch and eventually came to the conclusion that there was a special form of electricity that was produced in the brain and conducted through the nerves to the muscles and organs allowing them to move and perform their vital functions. He finally announced the results of his work in 1791 in his publication De viribus electricitatis in motu musculari commentarius (Commentary on the effect of electricity on muscular motion). Galvani had some twelve special copies of this work printed for private distribution to others and the Dibner Library has one of these, the copy that Galvani sent to Volta. While his colleagues accepted Galvani’s concept of animal electricity, Volta felt differently and concluded that Galvani’s use of dissimilar metals created the electric current that caused the frogs’ muscles to twitch, and this led to his development of the battery. While the Dibner Library has a number of Galvani’s important publications, we lacked the important volume of his Opera edite ed inedite (Bologna, 1841), an odd thing considering the strong collection in electromagnetic works in the library. We are happy to report that we have now obtained this posthumous collection of his published and unpublished works and it is now happily ensconced in our air-conditioned rare book vault. Our new copy is a particularly nice one in a well-made contemporary binding and the paper in excellent condition with the pages being in an uncut state and many of the sheets are still unopened.


Alberti, Guiseppe Antonio, 1712-1768. Trattato della misura delle fabbriche
Venice, Giambattista Recurti, 1757. QA465 .A43 1757.

To add to our mathematical and engineering holdings, the Dibner Library obtained an exceptional copy of Giuseppe Antonio Alberti’s Trattato della misura delle fabbriche (Treatise of measurement in construction) (Venice, 1757). Alberti was an important engineer for the Vatican in the 18th century and in this position he had an enormous influence on Italian civil engineers. The book is a significant work on stereometry, which is about the measurements of the volume of various solid figures, such as cylinders, spheres, and wine casks. In it he demonstrates various methods for measuring and estimating the quantities and costs of materials for various spaces and structures, including the many intricate vaults and domes of buildings of the period. The book is a fine example of the increasing importance of sophisticated mathematics to the development of civil engineering.


Prony, Riche, 1755-1839. Rapport sur la nouvelle et l'ancienne machines à vapeur
Paris, Mme. Huzard, 1826. TJ464 .P76 1826.

We have been quite active in building up the Dibner Library’s collection of early works on steam engineering in recent years and one of our most recent purchases is a book by Gaspard Riche who later became Baron de Prony (1755–1839). As a student Prony came to the attention of the great engineer Perronet, who brought Prony to Paris to be his assistant. Over the years Prony produced several important works including the Nouvelle architecture hydralique (1790–1796) and the Mécanique philosophique (1800), both of which are in the Dibner Library. Prony lived during turbulent times in France and survived the Revolution thanks primarily to his friendship with Lazare Carnot, the engineer and a leading member of the Committee for General Defense, the Committee of Public Safety (1793–94) and the Directory (1793–97). In 1794 Prony became professor of analysis at the newly established École Polytechnique and in 1798 he also became the director of the famed engineering school, the École des Ponts et Chaussées, where he had graduated in 1780. In those positions Prony helped shape and develop the curriculum for future French engineers and became the leading engineer from 1800 to 1840. After the restoration of the monarchy, Prony remained in favor with the authorities and Charles X made him a baron. The work we obtained is his late (1826) study, Rapport … sur la nouvelle et l’ancienne machines à vapeur, établies à Paris, au Gros-Caillou (Report on the new and older steam engines established in Paris at Gros-Caillou). This report was commissioned for use in the lawsuit Lecour vs. Edwards, wherein Edwards was being sued for providing a steam engine that apparently did not conform to Lecour’s expectations. For this work Prony developed in full his method for determining the work produced by a machine. Prony provides us with the details of his interesting experiments and calculations, so it is quite a seminal work in the field of mechanical engineering. By the way, Prony used his method to prove that Edwards’ machine performed beautifully but the masonry foundation did not allow it to perform as well as it could and it needed to be repaired and upgraded.


Ditton, Humphry, 1675-1715. An institution of fluxions
London, W. Botham, 1726. QA302 .D58 1726.

The Library’s holdings in history of mathematics and Newtoniana were strengthened with the purchase of the second edition of Humphry Ditton’s An institution of fluxions (1726). “Fluxions,” as we all know, is Isaac Newton’s term for the derivatives of mathematical functions and the “method of fluxions” is essentially what we call the differential calculus. The first edition of this work appeared in 1706 and was one of the first texts on differential calculus to appear. John Clarke, an accomplished mathematician and later Dean of Salisbury Cathedral, produced this revised, corrected, and improved edition twenty years later. Ditton (1675–1715) was headed for a career in the church but upon the death of his father he was free to follow his heart and study mathematics. He came to the attention of Newton who liked him enough to recommend him as the master of the Royal Mathematical School at Christ’s Hospital in West Sussex. There he would train poor boys in mathematical and scientific skills that would prove useful in navigation and trade, and supply apprentices to merchant and trading companies involved in the expansion of the British Empire. As a result of his collegiality with Newton, Ditton met William Whiston, Newton’s protégé and successor as Lucasian professor at Cambridge (though Whiston would later be dismissed in 1710 due to his Arian heresy). Together, the two men proposed that Britain should establish a committee in 1714 to judge and award a prize for whomever could determine longitude accurately at sea. That year the Board of Longitude was established and, oddly enough, Ditton and Whiston presented their prescient but impractical solution to the longitude problem: set a sequence of moored lightships along standard shipping routes and at midnight every night the lightships would send up a rocket that would be visible for 85 miles whereby passing ships could correct their watches and adjust their dead-reckoning. However, this method depended on the lightships having accurate clocks and the weather being clear, among other problems, so the Board did not think this method worthy of the prize, which was not awarded until 1773 to John Harrison for his chronometer. Ditton and Whiston’s method was soundly ridiculed by Jonathan Swift and others in his Scriblerus Club and some have theorized that this public humiliation led to poor Ditton’s untimely death the following year.