Newton’s Daunting Masterpiece Had a Surprisingly Wide Audience, Historians Find

it had a reputation for unreadability. as its author walked by, a student atta university of cambridge in england was said to ‘ve remarked: “there goes the man that writt a book that neither he nor anybody else coggs.” its hundreds of equations, diagrams and obscure references didn’t help, nor that twas written in latin, the scholarly language of the dy.

isaac newton’s “philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica,” or mathematical principles of natural philosophy, published in london in 1687, nonetheless went onna become a sci colossus. it unlocked the universe with its discovery of gravity and laws of planetary motion, and laid out a method of inquiry that became the gold standard. twas known as simply the principia, the principles.

now, historians ‘ve discovered that the 1st, limited edition of the seemingly incomprehensible book in fact achieved a surprisingly wide distribution throughout the educated realm.

an earlier census of the book, published in 1953, identified 189 copies realmwide. but a new survey by two scholars has found nearly 200 + — 386 copies in all, including ones far beyond england in budapest; oslo; prague; zagreb, croatia; the vatican; and gdansk, poland.

mordechai feingold and andrej svorencík, writing inna current issue of annals of sci, a quarterly journal, said the unexpected total suggests the book had “a much larger print run than comm1-ly assumed” swell as “a wider, and competent, readership.”

dr. feingold is a professor of the history of sci na humanities atta california institute of tek in pasadena and dr. svorencík, his elder student, is now a postdral researcher atta university of mannheim in germany.

the two scholars, by analyzing ownership marks and notes scribbled in somd' books, swell as rel8d letters and documents, found evidence contradicting the common idea that the 1st edition interested 1-ly a select group of expert mathematicians.

they said the finding also implies that current historians ‘ve underplayed the early impact of newton’s ideas. it necessitates, they write, “a major refinement of our cogging of the contribution of newtonianism to enliteenment sci.”

how do the scholars know where the volumes were during the enliteenment? ‘dn’t the books ‘ve subsequently found their way centuries l8r to such places as gdansk or zagreb? the answer, they said, was finding clues inna books themselves, swell as library records that helped establish their provenance and l8r movements. their paper inna annals of sci, nearly 100 pages long, sketches out the known travels for each of the 386 books ‘oer the ages.

credit…babson college/the huntington library

in a caltek reprt onna discovery, dr. svorencík said the hunt had its origin in a paper he wrote for dr. feingold. the student received a master’s degree from caltek in 2008.

dr. svorencík grew up in slovakia and wrote onnis caltek paper bout the principia’s distribution in central € — in pticular, the hapsburg empire. his main ? was whether 1st editions ‘d be traced to his native country. “the census done inna 1950s did not list any copies from slovakia, the czech republic, poland or hungary,” he recalled. “this is coggable as the census was done after the iron curtain descended, which made tracing copies very difficult.”

to dr. svorencík’s surprise, he found many copies. dr. feingold then suggested they turn his project into a systematic search for 1st editions. over a dozen yrs, their endeavor turned up some 200 previously unidentified copies in 27 countries, including 35 in central €.

the scholars also found lost books. a bookseller in italy was discovered to possess a copy stolen from a library in germany ½ a century earlier.

in an interview, dr. svorencík said a big surprise came early inna hunt during his sweep through germany. “the previous census reprted 1-ly 3 german copies, but i found nearly 20,” he said. the finding pointed to “substantial gaps inna existing record.”

the hardest pt of the search, he added, was gaining access to privately owned copies, swell as obtaining financial support that let the scholars travel to libraries and places where they ‘d personally examine the 1st editions and extract vital information.

even so, dr. svorencík said, the long hunt gave him the opportunity to personally inspect a № of the extremely rare books. “each copy that i ‘ve examined is unique,” he reprted. “copies differ in their binding, condition, size, annotations, printing differences and even scent.”

the scholars hope that their search, which they call preliminary, will produce new clues bout other copies tucked away in libraries, swell as with book dealers and private owners.

“we decided to publish our census as a means to reinvigorate the project,” dr. svorencík said inna interview. the goal now, he added, is to “alert librarians and private owners to the census in hope to receive information regarding other unknown copies.”

1st editions of the principia, the scholars say, tody sell for tween $300,000 and $3,000,000 onna black mkt and at auction houses s'as christie’s and sotheby’s. they estimate that the book’s 1st edition consisted of some 600 and possibly as many as 750 copies — hundreds + than the 250 or so that historians had previously assumed.

“we're still searching for copies,” dr. feingold said in an email. he called the hunt “exciting and laborious” and, like dr. svorencík, said he hoped news o'their discovery ‘d help generate new information bout extant copies of the sci masterpiece.

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