After core religious works, a particular book stands out in the history of Humankind as one of the most influential in modern history. That book is Isaac Newton’s 1687 smash hit best selling science book Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, known more colloquially as the Principia. A new census has more than doubled the number of known copies of the famous first edition. The last time anybody chedked was 1953, and at that time 189 copies were known to exist. The new CalTech survey has identified the locations of 386 copies. According to the study authors, there may be as many as another 200 copies still undocumented in public and private collections.
That wasn’t the only revelation to come from the survey. The researchers, Mordechai (Moti) Feingold, the Kate Van Nuys Page Professor of the History of Science and the Humanities at Caltech, and his former student, Andrej Svoren?ík (MS ’08) of the University of Mannheim in Germany, spent more than a decade tracing copies of the book around the world. Feingold and Svoren?ík are co-authors of a paper about the survey published in the journal Annals of Science. By analyzing ownership marks and notes scribbled in the margins of some of the books, along with related letters and other documents, they found evidence that the Principia, once thought to be reserved for a select group of expert mathematicians, was more widely read and understood than previously thought.
“We felt like Sherlock Holmes,” said Feingold. “One of the realizations we’ve had is that the transmission of the book and its ideas was far quicker and more open than we assumed, and this will have implications on the future work that we and others will be doing on this subject.”
In the Principia, Newton introduced the laws of motion and universal gravitation, “unifying the terrestrial and celestial worlds under a single law,” says Svoren?ík.
“By the 18th century, Newtonian ideas transcended science itself,” says Feingold. “People in other fields were hoping to find a similar single law to unify their own respective fields. The influence of Newton, just like that of Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein, exerted considerable influence on many other aspects of life, and that is what made him such a canonical figure during the 18th century and beyond.”
Principia Found Behind the Iron Curtain
Svoren?ík says that the project was born out of a paper he wrote for a course in the history of science taught by Feingold. Originally from Slovakia, Svoren?ík had written a term paper about the distribution of the Principia in Central Europe. “I was interested in whether there were copies of the book that could be traced to my home region. The census done in the 1950’s did not list any copies from Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Poland, or Hungary. This is understandable as the census was done after the Iron Curtain descended, which made tracing copies very difficult.”
Svoren?ík found more copies than Feingold had expected he would. The summer after the class, Feingold suggested to Svoren?ík that they turn his project into the first-ever complete, systematic search for copies of the first edition of the Principia. Their detective work turned up roughly 200 previously unidentified copies in 27 countries, including 35 copies in Central Europe. Feingold and Svoren?ík found lost or stolen copies of the masterpiece.
Copies of the first edition of the Principia sell today for between $300,000 and $3,000,000 via auction houses like Christie’s and Sotheby’s as well as on the black market. They estimate that some 600, and possibly as many as 750 copies of the book’s first edition were printed in 1687.
The Link to Halley’s Comet
While Sir Isaac Newton wrote the Principia, he didn’t publish it himself. His publisher came in the personage of Edmond Halley, a well-known English scientist who made several discoveries about our solar system, including the orbital period of a particularly spectacular celestial object which later became known as Halley’s Comet. Before the Principia was written, Halley had asked Newton for some calculations regarding elliptical orbits of bodies in our solar system. When Halley saw the calculations, “he got so excited, he rushed back to Cambridge and basically forced Newton to write the Principia,” says Feingold. It was, in fact, Halley that funded the publication of the book’s first edition.
The idea that the Principia was incomprehensible and little read is called into question with the new survey results. Not only does the research show that there was a larger market for the book than once thought, it also demonstrates that people were digesting its contents to a greater extent than realized.
The impact of the book had already been considered immense and pivotal to the development of modern science. The new information suggests that it was much more so than ever previously thought. The ramifications are profound, and the research into the distribution and audience the book had is ongoing.