Physics in Perspective

, Volume 17, Issue 1, pp 74–79 | Cite as

Sarah Dry, The Newton Papers: The Strange and True Odyssey of Isaac Newton’s Manuscripts. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014, xi + 238 pages. $29.95

Book Reviews

When A. Rupert Hall and Marie Boas Hall published their edition of Newton’s unpublished scientific papers in 1962, they lamented that there was little promise that England would ever honor the memory of its finest intellect in the way that other countries had done. While there were proud national editions of the works of Galileo Galilei or Christiaan Huygens, the edited papers of Newton were to all intents and purposes no more than membra disjuncta. No complete edition of his writings was so much as contemplated, and the task fell to scholars to produce volumes such as their own in order in some way to fill the gap.

The editors of the Unpublished Scientific Papers of Isaac Newton might also have mentioned the major project to produce a philological-critical edition of all the extant letters and papers of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, which at the time was slowly getting back on track after interruptions caused by two world wars. That project had been initiated by the Association Internationale des Académies in 1901 and had begun as a collaboration between German and French institutions, providing even greater indication than the examples cited by Hall and Boas Hall of the weight attached to preserving the scientific heritage of continental Europe. Admittedly, the joint Franco-German participation in editing Leibniz ended as a result of the Great War, but the Sämtliche Schriften und Briefe is a truly massive undertaking and, like the Euler Edition, continues to flourish today. Things in England could hardly have been more different.

Even had there been a similar initiative for Newton, it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to realize. At the turn of the twentieth century, most of his letters and papers were held in just a few private collections and were largely inaccessible even to genuine scholars. Three and a half decades later, the largest part of his scientific and literary legacy was to be found dispersed in collections around the world, with some manuscripts—fortunately not many—vanished beyond trace.

The story of the fate of Newton’s letters and papers, as told in Sarah Dry’s new book, is partly one of conflicting family interests after the great man’s death, partly one of social, economic, and above all intellectual change during the intervening years between then and now. But it is so much more besides. The journey taken by Isaac Newton’s scientific and literary legacy from 1727 onwards is intimately connected with the history of libraries in great aristocratic houses, with the culture of book and manuscript collections largely founded on the dispersal of those libraries in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and ultimately with the emergence of history of science as a discipline in its own right, requiring a solid body of definitive and reliable source materials. Importantly, it is also not just a story about the papers themselves, but also about the kind of figure Newton was to represent, his personality and the nature of his thought they were likely to portray. In this way, The Newton Papers allows the reader to witness the significant role played by his scientific and literary legacy in creating and sustaining an image of heroic science. Conversely, revelations through his letters and papers that Newton held or at least was strongly inclined towards anti-Trinitarian views and devoted much of his time and energy to addressing questions of alchemy, seriously questioned the authenticity of that very image.

After Newton’s death on March 30, 1727, while other members of his family began an undignified squabble about dividing up his not inconsiderable worldly assets, his niece Catherine Conduitt (née Barton) and her husband John Conduitt concerned themselves above all with his scientific and literary legacy about which no instructions whatsoever had been left. An initial rudimentary catalogue was prepared by Thomas Pellet, Fellow of the Royal Society, who had been tasked with examining a disorderly mass of loose papers, drafts, and partly completed book manuscripts, while his substantial collection of books was sold for cash.

Among the letters and papers Newton left behind, Pellet found only five documents worthy of publication and only one ready for immediate printing. The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms was duly published in 1728, followed later the same year by the draft of the last book of the Principia, while the Observations upon the Prophecies, in which Newton sought to explain the references of prophetic images, came out in 1733. (13, 25)

Correctly, Dry points out that the antiquarian John Aubrey was one of the first scholars to argue for the necessity of preserving the manuscripts of great men, (14) but she fails to note that the Royal Society early on actually put such a policy into practice, as exemplified by the production of the Opera Posthuma of the astronomer Jeremiah Horrocks (Horrox) by John Wallis in 1673.

John Conduitt, who inherited Newton’s papers as part of a financial arrangement for inheriting Newton’s professional liability when succeeding him as master of the Mint, was also concerned to further his memory in intellectual circles. Having persuaded Bernard de Fontenelle to grace Newton with a suitable eulogy and having provided him with material to that very purpose, he was so disappointed with the result that he subsequently decided to produce a biography of his own. There were no doubt many reasons why this ambitious undertaking was never completed, but it is likely that anti-Trinitarianism loomed fairly large. Of course, to a discerning reader of Newton this would not have come as a surprise because already the General Scholium added to the second edition of the Principia clearly pointed in this direction. Be that as it may, Conduitt ensured that the papers in his possession were kept well out of view. (21–3)

Conduitt’s daughter Kitty having married into the aristocratic Portsmouth family, the Newton papers were eventually inherited by Kitty’s son, John Wallop, who became the second Earl of Portsmouth, while some of the theological writings found their way to New College, Oxford. (28) Kept on the family estate at Hurstbourne Park in Hampshire, the papers’ secrecy was jealously guarded. One of only very few who managed to pass the gatekeeper was Samuel Horsley, secretary of the Royal Society, who had undertaken the task of producing an edition of Newton’s works. But when the auspiciously titled five-volume Opera quae exstant omnia appeared between 1779 and 1785, they contained little that was not already known. (31)

As Dry makes clear, if Newton entered the nineteenth century as an almost mythical figure with no rough edges, things were soon to change. In a contribution to a French encyclopedia, Jean-Baptiste Biot adduced evidence for Newton having experienced a period of madness before he turned to theology, a view for which Peter King’s contemporary biography of Locke provided additional support. Further damage was done by Francis Baily, whose important investigations on the letters and papers of John Flamsteed revealed Newton’s dishonorable treatment of the first Astronomer Royal, when, using his privileged position in the Royal Society, he published the Historia coelestis Britannica without the author’s consent, indeed substituting thereby Flamsteed’s preface by one of his own making. (47–9, 107)

If Baily’s Newton appeared to be a man inclined to anger and vindictiveness and also one reluctant to share his work with contemporary savants, David Brewster and other members of the British Association for the Advancement of Science did all they could to defend Newton’s good name. Although Brewster, too, in producing his first biography of the great man was unable to gain access to Hurstbourne Park, he sought to portray Newton’s natural philosophy and theology as parts of a coherent whole. Whereas for Biot Newton’s temporary insanity separated his early work as an exact scientist from his later immersion in theological questions, for Brewster the two sides were intimately linked and therefore thoroughly reconcilable. (42) By the time he came to publish his magisterial two-volume Memoirs of the Life, Writings, and Discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton (1855), he had seen with his own eyes the extensive Portsmouth papers on alchemy, but tellingly sought to argue them away as simply reflecting contemporary tastes. (74) Meanwhile, the mathematician Augustus de Morgan suggested an entirely different way to approaching such potential biographical anomalies. In his view, a man’s personality and beliefs were irrelevant to the assessment of his scientific achievements. Therefore, according to de Morgan, it was perfectly legitimate to make a distinction between a man’s intellect and his morals. (68, 76)

The nineteenth-century fashion for investigating the lives of great figures by drawing on hitherto untapped manuscript and printed resources gave new impetus to studies in the history of science in general and to Newton scholarship in particular. James Orchard Halliwell founded the short-lived Historical Society of Science, which could count among its members such illustrious figures as de Morgan and the Savilian professor of geometry at Oxford, Baden Powell; under its auspices he published his famous Collection of Letters Illustrative of the Progress of Science in England (1841). De Morgan recognized that the editing of scientific papers such as Newton’s required combining the talents of the mathematician and the palaeographer, something which was at least partially realized when S. R. Rigaud, Baden Powell’s successor as Savilian professor, published his two-volume Correspondence of Scientific Men (1841) from the extensive collection of scientific letters, mainly deriving from the mathematical practitioner John Collins, held in the estate of the Earl of Macclesfield at Shirburn Castle. (70)

With increasing financial pressures on the ancestral halls of noble families and increasing public sentiment that there should be greater accountability for papers of national significance, the fifth Earl of Portsmouth donated a substantial portion of the Newton manuscripts in his possession, namely those on scientific matters, to the University of Cambridge, while allowing the remaining papers on alchemy, theology, and chronology to be catalogued there too, before being returned to Hurstbourne Park. It was not until fifty years later that these papers were released, when financial reasons, including the ninth Earl’s divorce proceedings, forced him to put them up for auction. How ironic it was, as Dry aptly informs us, that the fifth Earl, illustriously named Isaac Newton Wallop, had claimed to value Englishness above everything else. (116)

The sale of Newton papers at Sotheby’s in July 1936 drew in an exciting mix of private collectors and established dealers. More than half the manuscripts on offer were concerned with topics in alchemy, while most of the others were on theological questions and chronology. Administrative papers deriving from Newton’s service as warden and then master of the Mint, which had come with the other papers to Hurstbourne Park around 1760 and had remained in storage there the whole time, were also listed in the sale catalogue. (8, 103, 143)

While the Mint papers were bought for the Public Record Office, the most successful bidder for the other material was the London dealer Maggs Bros., closely followed by John Maynard Keynes. There were thirty-seven purchasers in all. (4, 149–50) As Dry explains, this was only the beginning of a massive redistribution of Newton’s papers. The economist and Bloomsbury aesthete Keynes subsequently bought up more manuscripts from other successful bidders, planning to ensure that his collection ultimately returned to Cambridge. At the same time, another seriously interested individual intent on creating his own collection of Newton emerged, the brilliant linguist and rabbinic scholar Abraham Yahuda. Fortunately, as the two men soon discovered, their Newtonian interests complemented each other perfectly: while Yahuda focused on theology, Keynes was mainly concerned with the alchemical papers. (155)

Like so many of his predecessors, Keynes was compelled to reassess Newton in the light of the papers to which he now had personal access. It became clear, for instance, that Newton had started working on alchemy before he had embarked on working on the Principia. Attempting to reconcile the different sides of the great man, Keynes concluded that Newton was less the first of the age of reason than the last of the age of magic. (158)

For Yahuda, a very different Newton emerged, one who was interested in the Bible, the Cabbala, “and all sorts of Jewish questions” (169). Probably for the first time, here was a scholar who was able to come to a truly positive interpretation of Newton’s theological writings, which is his view reflected a man of “vigorous faith”. (166)

Eventually, both of these substantial collections of Newton papers found their way into worthy repositories, though in the case of Yahuda not without considerable legal entanglements beforehand. While Keynes fulfilled his promise and donated his collection to King’s College, Cambridge, Yahuda’s Newton collection is now housed in the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem. (174–5)

In the absence of unity conferred by a national edition of his works, the printed Newton has remained a Newton of parts. Aided by the emergence of the discipline of history of science, a development associated particularly with the pioneering work of the Belgian scholar George Sarton, the twentieth century witnessed the production of a number of partial editions of varying quality, ranging from the critical edition of the Principia by I. Bernard Cohen and Alexandre Koyré and the edition of Newton’s Theological Manuscripts by H. McLachlan to the seven-volume edition of his Correspondence, begun by H. W. Turnbull but completed by other editors. A towering achievement was undoubtedly the eight-volume edition of Newton’s Mathematical Papers by D. T. Whiteside, which went a long way to making the great man’s scientific legacy accessible in print. However, for all their importance to Newton scholarship, none of these editions today finds unqualified approval. As Dry points out, when Cohen and Koyré undertook their work on the Principia based on its three published editions (1687, 1713, and 1726), for reasons of time and money they were unable to take into account all the stages in the development of Newton’s thought. (185) For all the lasting glory that attaches to Whiteside’s Mathematical Papers, his editorial methods have recently come under attack, and justifiably so, because on many occasions mathematical ideas are developed beyond what is actually on paper. (202–3)

If this reviewer has any criticism of Dry’s book, it is that it places historical narrative above concerns for scholarly reference. No attempt is made to provide anything like a detailed description of the larger and smaller collections, though almost as an afterthought the author does towards the end at least summarize where the material whose journey she has discussed has now come to rest. (207–8) Of course, this omission does not detract from the story she has presented so fascinatingly and she could with some justification argue that one of the important points she has brought out is precisely the contingency of manuscript ownership. Nonetheless, a detailed survey would have made for a useful addition, as would a bibliography of works relating to the story she has told.

TheNewton Papers is an important, exceptionally well-written book, serving the needs of a scholarly community that is increasingly concerned to know more about the provenance of manuscripts to be found in the greater and lesser collections around the globe. Sarah Dry illuminates the motivations of collectors such as Keynes and Yahuda, shows the impact of socioeconomic developments on the custodianship of manuscript collections, takes us into the world of the early twentieth-century book and manuscript traders, and above all tells us not a little about the ways in which the reception of Newton’s manuscripts challenged the orthodoxy of existing conceptions of the great man’s scientific legacy. What emerges is that the current predilection for a Newton of many parts to a large extent reflects the various and often complex paths taken by his letters and papers following his demise.

Copyright information

© Springer Basel 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of HistoryUniversity of OxfordOxfordUK

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