The story of lost and stolen books and serious detective work across the continent

The first edition of Caltech’s Principia is part of the Institute’s Archives and Special Collections. In the 18th century, it belonged to Jean-Jacques d’Ortous de Mairan, a French mathematician and natural philosopher whose signature can be seen on the left side of the title page. Recently, Caltech was in the collection of physical Earnest Watson. The white “snake” on the left helps to keep the pages down. Credit: Caltech Archives

Hundreds of copies of the Newton Principle found in the new census

In a story of lost and stolen books and a serious detective work across continents, a Caltech historian and former student found uncountable copies of Isaac Newton’s groundbreaking science book. Mathematical principles of natural philosophy, with more colloquial language principles. The new census more than doubled the number of known copies of the first famous edition, published in 1687. The latest such census, published in 1953, found 189 copies, and a new Caltech survey found 386 copies. According to the study’s authors, up to 200 additional copies are probably undocumented in public and private collections.

“We felt like Sherlock Holmes,” says Mordechai (Moti) Feingold, Kate Van Nuys, Professor of Science and Humanitarian History at Caltech, He and Andrej Svorenčík (MS ’08), a former student at the University of Mannheim in Germany, have been following copies of the book around the world for more than a decade. Feingold and Svorenčík are co-authors of an article about the questionnaire published in the magazine Chronicles of science.

In addition, in addition to some letters and other documents, the researchers analyzed the ownership marks and notes drawn on the edges of some books. principlespreviously thought to be reserved for a select group of specialized mathematicians, it has been read and understood more widely than previously thought.

Newton's principles

Isaac Newton’s writings can be found here in a copy of Principia, a 17th-century masterpiece housed in the Huntington Library, the Museum of Art, and the Botanical Gardens. Newton will correct errors in the text and make editorial additions, some of which will be included in later editions of the Principle. Credit: Grace K. Babson of Babson College Sir Isaac Newton’s Works Collection / Huntington Library, San Marino, California

“One of the realities we’re experiencing,” says Feingold, “is that the book and its ideas are transmitted faster and more openly than we thought, and that it will have an impact on our future work and the work of others.”

Into principlesSvorenčík says that Newton unites the laws of motion and universal gravitation “on earth and in the heavens under a single law.”

“Until the 18th century, Newton’s ideas went beyond science itself,” says Feingold. “People in other fields were hoping to find a similar law to unite their fields,” he said. Newton’s influence, like that of Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein, had a profound effect on many other aspects of life, making it such a canonical figure in the 18th century and beyond. ”

principles Found behind an iron curtain

Svorenčík says the project was born out of a piece of paper he wrote for a course in the history of science taught by Feingold. Svorenčík, originally from Slovakia, had written for some time about the distribution principles In Central Europe. “I wondered if there were any copies of the book that could be found in my hometown. The 1950 census did not include any copies from Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Poland or Hungary. This is understandable, as the census was conducted after the Iron Curtain descended, which made it very difficult to track copies. ”

Caltech principles

A copy of Principia, owned by Caltech in the 18th century by French mathematician and natural philosopher Jean-Jacques d’Ortous de Mairan. Recently, Caltech was in the collection of physical Earnest Watson. Credit: Caltech Archives

Svorenčík was surprised to find more copies than Feingold expected. Last summer, Feingold suggested that Svorenčík turn his project into the first complete, systematic search for copies of his first edition. principles. Their subsequent detective work around the world found about 200 previously unknown copies in 27 countries, including 35 in Central Europe. Feingold and Svorenčík even came across lost or stolen copies of the masterpiece; For example, a copy found by a bookseller in Italy was stolen from a library in Germany half a century ago.

“We contacted the German library, but they were too slow to decide whether to take back the copy or somehow catch it, so it returned to the market,” Feingold says.

A rare, collected product

According to historians, copies of the first edition principles today we sell auction houses like Christie’s and Sotheby’s and between $ 300,000 and $ 3,000,000 on the black market. It is estimated that the first edition of the book was published in 1687 in about 600 and perhaps 750 copies.

Mordechai Feingold

Mordechai (Moti) Feingold specializes in the history of science and related disciplines in the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. Jed Buchwald, author of two books on Isaac Newton, including Newton and the Origin of Civilization (2013), Caltech’s Doris, and Henry Dreyfuss, professor of history; and the Newtonian Moment: Isaac Newton and the Origin of Modern Culture (2004). Coincidentally, Kate Van Nuys Page, a philanthropist from Feingold’s professorship, is the daughter of a farmer who once owned a large part of the San Fernando Valley and was known only as Isaac Newton Van Nuys. Credit: Mordechai Feingold

The person behind the publication of the book was Edmond Halley, a well-known British scientist who made a number of discoveries about our solar system, including the period later known as Halley’s Comet. Feingold explains this before principles Halley asked Newton for some calculations about the elliptical orbits of objects in our solar system. When Halley saw the calculations, he was “so excited that he ran back to Cambridge and basically forced Newton to write.” principles, ”Says Feingold. In fact, Halley funded the publication of the first edition of the book.

Immediately after its publication, the book became known as a genius. “Halley already prepared the people for the future,” Feingold says. principles he was a king. ” Later, according to Feingold, a “mystic” about Newton began to develop as an example in a story about two students walking in Cambridge and seeing Newton on the street. “‘A man goes,’ said one, ‘wrote a book that neither he nor anyone else understood,'” Feingold said.

Fikir principles was incomprehensible and questionable with the results of the newly read little survey. Research shows that there is a bigger market for the book than previously thought, and that people are more likely to digest the content than it actually is.

“When you look at the copies themselves, you’ll find small notes and comments that give hints on how to use them,” says Svorenčík. He took time to visit local libraries while attending conferences in various countries. “You look at the condition of property stamps, closures, deterioration, print differences, and so on.” Even without examining the books closely, historians have been able to trace who owned them through library records and other letters and documents and learn how copies were shared.

“It’s harder to show how busy a person is with a book than it is to own it, but we can look at the notes on the edge and how the book is shared,” says Feingold. “You might think there are more than one reader for each copy. It’s not like the day when you can get a book and read it alone. And then we can look for an exchange of ideas between people who share copies. You start to put the pieces together and solve the riddle. ”

Svorenčík and Feingold hope that the census, which they called in advance, will provide information about private owners, booksellers, and other available copies hidden in libraries. Continuing this line of research on the future, historians plan to further improve our understanding principles He shaped the science of the 18th century.

Reference: “Preliminary inventory of copies of Newton’s first edition principles (1687) ”by Mordechai Feingold and Andrej Svorenčík, September 2, 2020, Chronicles of science.
DOI: 10.1080 / 00033790.2020.1808700
CaltechAuthors: 20200908-074205216

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