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Challenge for scholars: Newton’s daunting masterpiece boasted of a wide audience

It had a reputation for unreadability. As its author walked by, a student at the University of Cambridge in England was said to have remarked: “There goes the man that writt a book that neither he nor anybody else understands.”

Challenge for scholars: Newton’s daunting masterpiece boasted of a wide audience
A copy of the first edition of Newton?s ?Principia,? owned in the 18th century by a French math


Its hundreds of equations, diagrams and obscure references didn’t help, nor that it was written in Latin, the scholarly language of the day.Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, or Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, published in London in 1687, nonetheless went on to become a scientific colossus. It unlocked the universe with its discovery of gravity and laws of planetary motion, and laid out a method of inquiry that became the gold standard. It was known as simply the Principia, the Principles.

Now, historians have discovered that the first, limited edition of the seemingly incomprehensible book in fact achieved a surprisingly wide distribution throughout the educated world. An earlier census of the book, published in 1953, identified 189 copies worldwide. But a new survey by two scholars has found 200 more — 386 copies in all, including ones in Budapest; Oslo; Prague; Zagreb, Croatia; the Vatican; and Gdansk, Poland.

Mordechai Feingold and Andrej Svorencik, writing in the current issue of Annals of Science, a quarterly journal, said the unexpected total suggests the book had “a much larger print run than commonly assumed” as well as “a wider, and competent, readership.”

Dr. Feingold is a professor of the history of science and the humanities at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and Dr. Svorencik, his former student, is now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Mannheim in Germany. The two scholars, by analysing ownership marks and notes scribbled in some of the books, as well as related letters and documents, found evidence contradicting the common idea that the first edition interested only a select group of expert mathematicians.

They said the finding also implies that current historians have underplayed the early impact of Newton’s ideas. It necessitates, they write, “a major refinement of our understanding of the contribution of Newtonianism to Enlightenment science.”

How do the scholars know where the volumes were during the Enlightenment? Couldn’t the books have subsequently found their way centuries later to such places as Gdansk or Zagreb? The answer, they said, was finding clues in the books themselves, as well as library records that helped establish their provenance and later movements. Their paper in the Annals of Science, nearly 100 pages long, sketches out the known travels for each of the 386 books over the ages. In a Caltech report on the discovery, Dr. Svorencik said the hunt had its origin in a paper he wrote for Dr. Feingold. The student received a master’s degree from Caltech in 2008. Dr Svorencik grew up in Slovakia and wrote in his Caltech paper about the Principia’s distribution in Central Europe — in particular, the Hapsburg Empire. His main question was whether first editions could be traced to his native country. “The census done in the 1950s did not list any copies from Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Poland or Hungary,” he recalled. “This is understandable as the census was done after the Iron Curtain descended, which made tracing copies very difficult.”

To Dr. Svorencik’s surprise, he found many copies. Dr. Feingold then suggested they turn his project into a systematic search for first editions. Over a dozen years, their endeavour turned up some 200 previously unidentified copies in 27 countries, including 35 in Central Europe. First editions of the Principia, the scholars say, today sell for between $300,000 and $3,000,000 on the black market and at auction houses such as Christie’s and Sotheby’s. They estimate that the book’s first edition consisted of some 600 and possibly as many as 750 copies — hundreds more than the 250 or so that historians had previously assumed.

William J. Broad is a science journalist and senior writer for NYT©2020

The New York Times

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