Press release, 13 November 2020
Print version (PDF)
The findings suggest that Isaac Newton's 17th-century masterpiece, known more colloquially as the Principia, was accessible to a wider public than previously thought. The new census more than doubles the number of known copies of the famous first edition, published in 1687. The last census of this kind, published in 1953, had identified 189 copies, while the new survey finds 386 copies.
Dr. Andrej Svorenčík, postdoctoral scholar for Experimental Economics and History of Economics at the University of Mannheim, and his former professor of the History of Science at Caltech spent more than a decade tracing copies of the book around the world. Nonetheless, according to the two historians, up to 200 additional copies likely still exist undocumented in public and private collections. They estimate that some 600, and possibly as many as 750 copies of the book's first edition were printed in 1687.
In addition to unknown copies, the researchers found evidence that the Principia, once thought to be reserved for only a select group of expert mathematicians, was more widely read and comprehended than previously thought. “When you look through the copies themselves, you might find small notes or annotations that give you clues about how it was used,” says Svorenčík, who has personally inspected about 10 percent of the copies documented in their census.
When traveling to conferences in different countries, Svorenčík would make time to visit local libraries. “You look at the ownership marks, the condition of the binding, printing differences, et cetera.” Even without inspecting the books up close, the historians could trace who owned them through library records and other letters and documents, and learn how copies were shared.
Principia Found Behind the Iron Curtain
The project was born out of a paper Svorenčík wrote for a course in the history of science taught by Feingold. Originally from Slovakia, Svorenčík had written a term paper about the distribution of the Principia in Central Europe. “I was interested in whether there were copies of the book that could be traced to my home region. The census done in the 1950s did not list any copies from Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Poland, or Hungary. This is understandable as the census was done after the Iron Curtain descended, which made tracing copies very difficult.”
To Svorenčík's surprise, he found many more copies than Feingold had expected. The summer after the class, Feingold suggested to Svorenčík that they turn his project into the first-ever complete, systematic search for copies of the first edition of the Principia. Their ensuing detective work across the globe turned up about 200 previously unidentified copies in 27 countries, including 21 copies in Germany.
Feingold and Svorenčík even came across lost or stolen copies of the masterpiece; for example, one copy found with a bookseller in Italy was discovered to have been stolen from a library in Germany half a century earlier. They contacted the German library, but it was too slow to make a decision to buy back the copy or apprehend it somehow, so it ended up back on the market. According to the historians, copies of the first edition of the Principia sell today for between $300,000 and $3,000,000 via auction houses like Christie's and Sotheby's as well as on the black market.
Svorenčík and Feingold are co-authors of a paper about the survey published in the journal “Annals of Science”. The article can be downloaded via this link: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00033790.2020.1808700
Continuing this line of research into the future, the historians plan to further refine our understanding of how the Principia shaped 18th-century science.
Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica
In the Principia, Newton introduced the laws of motion and universal gravitation, “unifying the terrestrial and celestial worlds under a single law,” says Svorenčík. Scientists 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.
Postdoctoral scholar for Experimental Economics and History of Economics
University of Mannheim
Dr. Maartje Koschorreck
Vice Media Spokeswoman
University of Mannheim
Phone: +49 621 181–1080