Isaac Newton's Writings Go Online

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Image: Sir Isaac Newton’s own first edition copy of his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica with his handwritten corrections for the second edition. Credit: Andrew Dunn/Wikimedia Commons

More than 4,000 pages of the pioneering scientist and mathematician Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) are now publicly available online, Cambridge University has announced.

Holding the world’s largest and most significant collection of Newton’s scientific works, the University Library decided to embark on the huge digital project in 2010.

Up to 200 pages were captured each day, although significant conservation work had to be undertaken on several of the manuscripts and notebooks before they were considered robust enough to be digitized.

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“Anyone, wherever they are, can now see at the click of a mouse how Newton worked and how he went about developing his theories and experiments,” said Grant Young, digitisation manager.

The collection includes Newton’s own annotated copy of his 1687 masterwork, “Philosophiæ naturalis principia mathematica,” in which he described his laws of motion and gravitation.

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Containing Newton’s own edits and notes, the digitized copy shows how methodically the scientist worked through his text, “marking alterations, crossing out and annotating his work in preparation for the second edition,” Young said.

In addition to Newton’s Principia, notebooks and early papers, the University has included the “Waste Book,” a very large notebook the scientist inherited from his stepfather. He filled it with notes and calculations when he was forced to leave his studies in Cambridge during the Great Plague.

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“With plenty of time and paper to hand, Newton was able to make significant breakthroughs, particularly in his understanding of calculus,” Young said.

But not all Newton’s contemporaries would have approved the online publication.

Several manuscripts in the collection contain the handwritten line “not fit to be printed,” scrawled by Thomas Pellet, a Fellow of the Royal Society, who had been asked to go through Newton’s papers after his death and decide which ones should be published.

Despite Pellet’s warning, thousands of further pages will be uploaded over the next months, until the entire Newton collection is fully available online.

As the Newton project is finished, Young and colleagues will move on to some of the University Library’s other important scientific papers, including the works of Charles Darwin.

“Before today, anyone who wanted to see these things had to come to Cambridge. Now we’re bringing Cambridge University Library to the world,” Young said.