Monday, 9 March 2009

Robert Burns Crow

For the last two years I have been in close correspondence with the good people at HCUP about the viability of bringing about an edition of Robert Burns Crow’s Constitutional and Mechanical Assumptions of the Material System (1780) as part of their Historical Reprint Series. As with all of such publications, the aim would be to issue a new facsimile volume of the text, and therefore the task is dependent on obtaining a clear extant edition for electronic reformatting.

Burns Crow’s book however has suffered an unfortunate fate. Its original publication by John Orme of Piccadilly was halted by the outbreak of the Gordon Riots. Though Orme himself was not a papist, the publisher had recently handled the printing of Lord Mansfield’s collection of letters on the press, and as a consequence when violence erupted, Orme’s premises were subject to much disruption; windows were broken, machinery over-turned. Burns Crow’s book underwent a short and hurried run as a result.

Though Burns Crow was at that time the Regius Professor of Practical Astronomy at the University of St Andrews, and the book had received not insubstantial promotion in the newspapers and journals of its day, the interference with Orme’s presses during the riots led to few complete editions of the much-awaited book ever reaching its subscribers. I have located letters that reveal up to 400 signatories having paid to receive copies. It is thought that no more than 67 of these payments were ever honoured.

Further problems arose. In Orme’s hurried attempts to resume business, it appears that many copies of the text were hastily stitched together with folds from other publications – no doubt arising from papers being scattered about the floor of the workshop during the unrest. Several copies appeared with large sections of blank paper, many with the text interwoven with an unidentified edition of pastoral verse.

Of those editions known to have survived, none is complete. The task as I presented it to HCUP would be to assemble for the first time a full edition of the Constitutional and Mechanical Assumptions of the Material System, presenting it not as a facsimile (as many of the pages are damaged) but as a freshly constructed electronic text.

The press were initially very interested, hoping no doubt that such a project would bring publicity to their enterprise. It’s the kind of thing the Today programme might just pick up – book finally published after 230 years – and I was instructed to set about work assembling the whole manuscript.

It has been a lengthy task, which I have had to fit around other research. I have struggled to find many surviving copies of Burns Crow’s text. In total there are four, and each suffers from a unique peculiarity in its printing. I have sat up late many nights, finding which pages relate to corresponding pages in the other editions.

As time has gone on, and HCUP have received completed sections from me, their interest seems to have waned. Last week I was told that they would not be publishing the Constitutional and Mechanical Assumptions of the Material System but they wished me luck in finding an alternative outlet for the work I have undertaken for the last two years.

I present below a section from the book, and invite anyone interested in bringing about the publication of this invaluable scientific text, to contact me here.

A comet, containing the requisite quantity of matter, whose perihelium distance from the sun coincides with that of Mercury, and moving from which in a direction contrary to the order of the signs, will, by striking the planet convert the elliptical orbit of the planet into a perfect circle whose radius should be equal to the distance of Mercury from the sun at the perihelium. The collision of two such bodies is supposed to be oblique and matter will be rendered still more evident, by taking this case of direct collision. An equivalent case might be effected by a collision at the aphelium, provided the velocity of the burnished heart and glowing eye, she dropped her pail and felt a sigh, espoused within; to scan the sky. God’s firmament beheld her then, the alder on the dreary fen, beshook with breezes held her stare, and kept the nymph a statue there, her face like marble and her hair, would preserve the motion of the jaculatory atoms in vigour, within the substance of such gross bodies and lead to the detection of one general property required in the figures of the quiescent atoms, namely a reticulated structure.

from Robert Burns Crow, Constitutional and Mechanical Assumptions of the Material System (1780)