SIAM News Blog

SIAM News Again Links Owners of a Copy of Green’s 1828 Essay

By Bob O'Malley

George Green was a self-educated miller in Nottingham, England, who wrote An Essay on the Application of Mathematical Analysis to the Theories of Electricity and Magnetism in 1828. It was published for the author by T. Wheelhouse with 51 local subscribers. The initial number of printed copies is unknown, but is likely no more than 100. Upon the urging of Lord Kelvin, the text was reprinted in Crelle’s Journal in the 1850s. It contains what we now call Green’s Theorem.

Mary Cannell, an educator at the then-Nottingham College of Education, spent her retirement learning much about George Green. Cannell wrote a splendid biography entitled George Green, Mathematician & Physicist 1793-18411 for his bicentennial, which was celebrated at Westminster Abbey. After meeting her, I urged SIAM to publish a second expanded edition (they did in 2001) and wrote a SIAM News article in 2000 encouraging applied mathematicians to buy the book.

Three years later, a lawyer—and lover of math and physics books—from North Bergen, NJ, found that article online and emailed me to say that he had a copy of Green’s essay. I visited his book-filled home and office and looked through that rare manuscript. He had purchased it along with 1,000 other books in 1978 for $1,000 from a bookstore in Queens (half the library of a German engineer who died without relatives). I bought the essay from the lawyer in 2007 and wrote a second article for SIAM News about my good luck.

Then, in early January of this year, I was contacted by a retired pure mathematician and book collector from London, who had been seeking a copy of Green’s essay for 30 years. He had handled one of Kelvin’s copies, sold to a London book dealer as part of the Turner Collection at the University of Keele in 1998. He read my 2007 SIAM News article and asked to buy my copy. The charming man then flew to Seattle, and left as the owner of the essay.

We can all continue to wonder how often an available copy of Green’s essay will turn up, and what it should be worth.


1 London: Athlone Press, 1993

Bob O’Malley, a past president of SIAM, is professor emeritus of applied mathematics at the University of Washington.

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