Newton’s masterwork is still going strong

How many first-edition copies of Isaac Newton’s ground-breaking book Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica are still on bookshelves around the world?

Probably more than you think, given it was published in 1687, and certainly more than the last best guess.

A census published in 1953 identified 187 copies, but a new round of detective work puts the number at a “preliminary” 387 with, the researchers suggest, up to 200 more likely still undocumented in public and private collections.

Analysis of ownership marks, margin notes and related letters documents also leads them to suggest that the Principia, once thought to be reserved for a select group of expert mathematicians, was actually more widely read and comprehended.

“One of the realisations we’ve had,” says Mordechai Feingold from California Institute of Technology, US, “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.”

Feingold and former student Andrej Svorenčík, now at Germany’s University of Mannheim, spent more than a decade tracing copies of the book around the world, finding “new” ones in 27 countries.

Their quest, which is described in a paper in the journal Annals of Science, began because Svorenčík was surprised to find that the previous census listed none at all in his native Slovakia, or in neighbouring countries that were then part of the Soviet Bloc.

In the Principia, Newton introduced the laws of motion and universal gravitation, “unifying the terrestrial and celestial worlds under a single law”, as Svorenčík puts it.

“By the 18th century, Newtonian ideas transcended science itself,” adds 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.”

The pair estimates that at least 600 and possibly as many as 750 copies of the book’s first edition were printed. If you have one, you’re in luck. They can fetch from US$300,000 to 10 times that amount via auction houses or on the black market.

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