Hundreds of copies of Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica found in a new count

Dr. Andrej Svorenčík, postdoctoral fellow at the University of Mannheim, and Professor Mordechai Feingold from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have searched for previously unknown copies of Isaac Newton’s pioneering science book.

The results of the census suggest that Isaac Newton’s 17th century masterpiece, colloquially known as the Principia , was accessible to a wider public than previously thought. The new count has more than doubled the number of known copies of the famous first edition published in 1687. The last specimen count of this species, published in 1953, identified 189 specimens, while the new search yielded 386 specimens.

The search of Dr. Andrej Svorenčík, postdoc in the history of economics at the University of Mannheim and his former professor for the history of science at Caltech, Mordechai Feingold, lasted more than a decade. Nevertheless, the two scientists suspect that up to 200 other books are probably still stored undocumented in public and private collections. They estimate that around 600, possibly 750 copies of the first edition of the book were printed in 1687.

In addition to unknown specimens, the researchers found evidence that the Principia , which was once believed to be reserved only for a select group of mathematicians, was read and understood more comprehensively than previously thought. “When you look through the specimens, you will find small notes or comments that give clues as to how they were used,” says Svorenčík, who personally inspected about 10 percent of the specimens documented in the census.

When Svorenčík traveled to various countries for conferences, he took time to visit local libraries. “You look at the ownership features, the condition of the binding, the pressure differences and a lot more,” says the scientist. Even without closely inspecting the books, historians could use library records and other letters and documents to find out who they belonged to and how the copies were passed on.

Svorenčík and Feingold have now jointly published an article about counting in the journal “Annals of Science”. The article is available at https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00033790.2020.1808700 .

As a continuation of the research project, they plan to further refine the understanding of how the Principia shaped science in the 18th century.

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