How a first edition of Principia with Isaac Newton's notes got to Sydney

21 January 2020
Rare copy of the text that "rewrote the rule book" on Earth and space
The University of Sydney copy of Principia is one of only four in the world known to have handwriting by Sir Isaac Newton.

Title page of The Principia, 1687. 

First published in 1687, Principia (Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica) is one of the most important books on natural philosophy in which Newton establishes the modern science of dynamics and outlines his three laws of motion.

While the original print run is estimated at between 250 and 400 copies, there are only 189 surviving first editions in the world and only four with annotations by the English mathematician himself. Of these four copies, the Sydney copy of Principia is the only one in the Southern Hemisphere and is held in the Rare Books & Special Collections at the University of Sydney library.

This extremely rare copy of the seminal text is believed to be a personal copy of Newton’s, which he and his assistant Roger Cotes sent to other mathematicians to eliminate any errors before the second edition was published.

"It clearly shows how Newton’s ideas were received by his contemporaries," said Julie Sommerfeldt, Manager of Rare Books & Special Collections at the University library.

Scottish mathematician John Craig is thought to have authored the corrections which feature at the front of the book along with other annotations throughout. Further corrections can be seen in this copy, written by Roger Coates and Newton himself.

"You could liken it to the 17th Century version of the peer-review process. Handling the physical item itself is a special experience; you can see the words inked on the page and know that they came from Newton’s own hand."

How significant is the book?

Explaining the significance of Principia for the field of mathematics and science in general, Professor Geordie Williamson calls the work "completely revolutionary".

Professor Geordie Williamson (left) is Director of the University of Sydney Mathematical Research Institute.

"The publication was really the first time we saw a physical law that was true everywhere. Without this work, for instance, Maxwell’s equations governing electricity or Fourier series equations on heat, would not have been possible," said Professor Williamson, Director of the Sydney Mathematical Research Institute at the University.

"Isaac Newtown totally rewrote the rule book in terms of the separation of what happens on Earth and what happens in space. Before Newton, European science considered there was a fundamental divide between ‘Heaven and Earth."

"Through Principia, Newtown established the fundamental fact that the same laws apply here on Earth as those in the heavens."

Professor Williamson last year was elected as the youngest living Fellow of the Royal Society, the world’s oldest scientific academy and publisher of Principia. Newton was President of the Royal Society from 1703 to 1727.

How Principia almost didn’t go to print

Halley’s ode to Sir Isaac Newton.

As Newton was finalising his work the Royal Society was printing a book called The History of Fishes.

"This book is quite lavishly illustrated and unfortunately the Society didn’t have enough budget to publish Principia,” Ms Sommerfeldt said.

"So, Edmond Halley – the English astronomer of Halley’s Comet fame and also a Clerk of the Society – stepped in to personally fund publication of the book."

The first edition of Principia features a poem written in Latin by Halley, titled ‘To the illustrious man Isaac Newton and this his work done in fields of the mathematics and physics, a signal distinction of our time and race’.

From Kent to Sydney: History of the book

After Newton, the next known owners were the family of Sir Demetrius James of Ightham Court in Kent, United Kingdom. While the date of acquisition remains a mystery, it’s likely to be one of his descendants who was the next owner.

Professor Sir Stephen Roberts, the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Sydney, and Mr R. Blomfield examining the first-edition copy

The book remained in an old clock tower in the James estate in Kent for about 140 years before it travelled to Australia in the hands of Harry Constantine Adolphus Elderton in 1854.

A distant relative of the James family, he inherited eight chests of books from the estate. 

Principia remained hidden in the chests until the Hon Arthur Bruce Smith stumbled across the book, purchasing it sight unseen after seeing it on a list of books for sale shortly after the chests arrived in Australia.

The future of Principia at Sydney

Ms Sommerfeldt described the condition of the book as excellent: "With careful handling, this copy will hopefully withstand centuries to come so that future generations can enjoy and study it."

The University of Sydney copy of Principia has been digitised and is available online alongside other digital resources via the University’s digital collection.

Members of the public, students and staff can access the book at the University of Sydney Fisher Library by using the booking system.

Katie Booth

Media & PR Adviser

Marcus Strom

Media & PR Adviser (Science)

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