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September 2012 Item of the Month

Newton’s Principia

Echoing the Enlightenment theme of the opening ceremony of the 2012 Paralympic games, this month’s featured item is the first issue of the first edition of Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae naturalis principia mathaematica, often regarded as one of the most influential books in the history of science. In it, Newton (1642-1727) laid down the groundwork for classical mechanics including a description of universal gravitation and the three laws of motion that dominated the study of physics for over 300 years. This first issue is distinguished by having the diagram on page 112 (imaged) printed upside down.

This particular copy belonged to the chemist and natural philosopher, John Dalton (1766-1844), who was a great admirer of Newton, and believed that a Newtonian method of hypothesis and deduction was very necessary in chemistry, where cautious Baconian reasoning would get nowhere.  This was his second-best copy of the Principia, which (as a note by him records) he passed on to someone else.

Written in Latin and published at Edmund Halley’s expense, the Principia was never an easy read; John Locke was advised to read the introductions and conclusions, and take the mathematics in between as all right. Book I sets out Newton’s scheme of mechanics; Book II shows that no scheme of aethereal vortices can account for the planetary motions; and Book III applies the mechanics, and the inverse square law of gravitation, to the moon and planets.

By the 1690s the first edition was becoming rare. Richard Bentley, Master of Trinity College, Cambridge persuaded Newton that a new edition was called for and commissioned Roger Cotes to undertake the work. Cotes discussed every detail with Newton and greatly enhanced the value of the final text. But at a late stage Johann Bernoulli noticed a mistake in the 10th proposition of the third book which necessitated hurried recalculation by Newton. Leaf Gg4 and the whole of quire Hh had to be reprinted.

Although Newton is known today for his mathematics and scientific methodology, he also spent much of his time studying alchemy, and ancient texts. He was especially interested in the interpretation of prophecy and the ways in which the ancients worshipped deities. In The chronology of ancient kingdoms amended (1728), he even went as far as to reconstruct the Temple of Solomon.  Much of his historical research, however, was motivated by his desire to reconcile the nature of matter with the attributes of God.

Image of inverted diagram, page 112 from Newton's work. Ref: SB+ 0032.
Inverted diagram on page 112 from Newton's work. Ref: SB+ 0032.

Every month we showcase here an item from our Heritage Collections.