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Thomson and Tait's Treatise on natural philosophy


Peter Guthrie Tait (1831-1901), a graduate of Peterhouse, Cambridge, and lecturer and chair of natural philosophy at Edinburgh University from 1860, recognised the serious need for a textbook to accompany his university teaching. Famed mathematical physicist and engineer, William Thomson (Lord Kelvin, 1824-1907), 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. Although letters and drafts passed frequently between the two authors, the first volume of the first edition was not published until 1867 (almost 6 years after Tait’s original outline draft), when it appeared in 2 divisions.

Treatise on natural philosophy, by Sir William
Thomson and Peter Guthrie Tait

Oxford, At the Clarendon Press, 1867.
First edition

Only 1 of the 4 projected volumes was ever written. Long anticipated, the Treatise was well-received, and became commonly referred to as T&T’ after the habit of the authors. It was considered an aid to teaching, although not as an elementary textbook, but rather as a creative treatise on the mathematical methods of physics. Between 1871 and 1874 it was translated into German by Hermann von Helmholtz and G. Wertheim. A ‘Preface by Helmholtz to the German Edition’ has been pasted in to this copy. 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. It defends the T&T’ against criticisms made by Johann Zöllner. The second division contains frequent annotations, including several pages of notes pasted in. Occasionally these notes themselves show signs of later revisions.





After disputes with Clarendon Press, a revised edition of the first volume of T&T’ was published instead by Cambridge University Press, the first part appearing in 1879 and the second in 1883. It included “slight additions and corrections” made by George Darwin and Horace Lamb. William Thomson had refereed Darwin’s paper ‘On the Influence of Geological Changes on the Earth’s Axis of Rotation’ for the Royal Society in 1876, and since then the two had become firm friends and colleagues. By 1879 Darwin was a Fellow of the Royal Society and in 1883 he became Plumian Professor and head of the BAAS tides committee (a role he took over from Thomson). Part 2 of the revised Treatise included many additions to the text written by Darwin, including extensive new material on tidal theories, a subject in which he had become a recognised authority. The revised edition was reprinted by CUP several times, including in these volumes from 1912.

Treatise on natural philosophy, by Lord Kelvin and Peter Guthrie Tait
Cambridge, At the University Press, 1912.
STORE 116:7-8

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