Born Pierre, Saône-et-Loire, France, 5 July 1826
Died Pierre, Saône-et-Loire, France, 2 January 1893
Amédée-Victor Guillemin’s fame is as an author of works on the physical sciences. He trained in scientific and literary studies at Beaune and Paris and taught mathematics from 1850 to 1860. Guillemin penned articles for a number of political and cultural magazines, and by 1860 he had become the editor in chief of a local journal, La Savoie, published at Chambéry. Politically, he was one of the defenders of the Republic.
Guillemin wrote a number of books on aspects of physics and industry, and these volumes went through many editions and printings. Among them were Les chemins de fer (originally published in 1862, seven editions by 1884), Les phénomènes de la physique (1868), Le monde physique (originally published as Éléments de cosmographie in 1867 and expressly designed for use in secondary schools; the new edition appeared in five volumes from 1881 to 1885), Les applications de la physique aux science, à l'industrie et aux arts (1874), and a 17-volume compendium of knowledge about the physical world and the heavens, Petite encyclopédie populaire (1881–1891). A number of these books appeared in English translation, occasionally revised by a British author.
Guillemin also wrote specifically on astronomy, some of which formed part of his popular compendium: Causeries astronomiques: Les mondes (1861, republished in 1863 and 1864), Le ciel, notions d’astronomie à l’usage des gens du monde et de la jeunesse (1864, five editions by 1877), La lune (1866, seventh edition in 1889), Les comètes (1875, revised edition in 1887), Les étoiles, notions d’astronomie sidérale (1879), Les nébuleuses, notions d’astronomie sidérale (1889), Le soleil (1869, revised in 1873 and 1883), La terre et le ciel (1888, republished in 1897), and Esquisses astronomiques: Autres mondes (1892).
English translations of Guillemin’s astronomical books were very popular. In particular, The Heavens: An Illustrated Handbook of Popular Astronomy, edited by Norman Lockyer and revised by Richard Proctor , first appeared in 1866, 2 years after the French original, and went through nine editions by 1883. The Sun was published in London 1 year after its Paris edition, in 1870, and appeared in six editions by 1896. Wonders of the Moon, revised by Maria Mitchell , appeared in 1873 and again in 1886. The World of Comets appeared first in 1877 and was highly regarded as a chronicle of cometary apparitions in an era when there were a number of books on the history of comets, by G. F. Chambers and others.
These works were typically lengthy popularizations of past and recent research, emphasizing scientific questions of the day and presenting summaries of current literature. The English translations included many editorial comments, occasionally arguing with the author. What set Guillemin’s works apart, however, were their very large numbers of illustrations, mostly woodcuts, with occasional dazzling chromolithographs. Many of the illustrations presented the viewer with a perspective from the astronomical object itself, such as a view of the rings of Saturn (seen from a supposedly cloud-free planetary surface). Earthbound views of astronomical phenomena often included features of local interest. From edition to edition, illustrations were added and removed, especially the chromolithographs. Guillemin’s astronomical works were the most lengthy and best-illustrated volumes available to the public in the last two generations of the nineteenth century.
The astronomical books of Guillemin did not have the authority of Proctor or Lockyer, the dash of Camille Flammarion , or the judgment of Agnes Clerke , but they held the field between the heyday of the woodcut and the rise of the halftone at the end of the nineteenth century. The closest that a later generation came to them was the Theodore Phillips and William Steavenson collection, Splendour of the Heavens, after World War I. Guillemin’s aim was to stir the imagination, and the richly illustrated books that spilled forth from his prolific pen did just that.