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BECQUEREL, Henri Antoine.

Recherches sur une Propriété Nouvelle de la Matière:

Activité Radiante Spontanée ou Radioactivité de la Matiére. [in:] Mémoires de l'Academie des Sciences de l'Institut de France. Tome Quarante-Sixième.

Published: Paris: Typographie de Firmin-Didot et Cie, 1903

Stock code: 78627

Price: £2,000

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First edition, first impression of the author’s magnum opus, the complete record of his discovery of radioactivity and research into the phenomenon. Henri Becquerel (1852–1958) was already a leading French scientist when x-rays were discovered by Wilhelm Röntgen in 1895. The following January he attended a session of the Académie des Sciences where it was demonstrated that X-rays caused phosphoresce, leading him to suspect that other types of phosphorescence might be associated with new types of rays. His first paper on the subject, “Sur les Radiations Invisibles émises par les Corps Phosphorescents” was published the next month, and announced that uranium could produce phosphorescence after exposure to sunlight. A few weeks later he prepared several photographic plates for further testing, but when the day proved too cloudy for the experiment, placed them in a darkened drawer together with uranium salts. Upon processing the images he made the astonishing discovery that uranium could fog photographic plates even when it had not been primed by sunlight. Shortly thereafter he “discarded phosphorescence completely and declared that the emanations from uranium constituted an entirely new and unsuspected property of matter, which in his seventh paper he named radioactivité” (PMM 393). Becquerel’s doctoral student was Marie Curie, and he encouraged her, and her husband Pierre, to investigate his discovery that the residue of pitchblende was even more radioactive than the uranium extracted from it. Their work led to the discovery of radium in 1898, and all three were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1903, the year of this publication and of Becquerel’s retirement from active research. This important volume is “his definitive work, containing a chronological narrative of his investigations, his mature conclusions and a bibliography of two hundred and fourteen treatises on radio-activity, dating from his own first paper in 1896” (PMM 393). Two versions were published by Firmin Didot in 1903, the first bound in blue paper-covered boards as part of the series Mémoires de l’Academie des Sciences de l’Institut de France, the second a separate edition in cloth. Both are uncommon, with OCLC reporting on seven institutional copies, but particularly so the journal issue in the original boards.

Large quarto. Original blue paper-covered boards printed in black. 13 plates from photographs. Bookplate. Boards rubbed and marked with some wear to the corners, spine and edges tanned, spotting to edges of text block and endpapers, but contents overall clean and largely unopened. A nice, tight copy.

Bibliography: Printing and the Mind of Man 393; Dibner 163; Norman 158

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