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Treasures of the Rare Books and Special Collections Library: Scientific works

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NEWTON, Isaac. Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica.
London : Societatis Regiae, 1687
Principia. Click to enlarge.


Principia

Isaac Newton, 1643-1727, the great English mathematician and physicist, is rightly considered one of the greatest scientists in history. He made contributions to many fields of science. He was, for example, one of the inventors of the branches of mathematics called calculus - the other was Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz - and he solved the mysteries of light and of optics. Even if he had not done any of these things however his fame would still be secured by this one book, the Philosophiae Naturalis Pricipia Mathematica, the Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, published in 1687 and still widely regarded as the most important book in the history of science.

In 1684, the Royal Society comissioned Edmund Halley to look into some of the problems surrounding the principles of planetary motion. On visiting Newton, Halley was told to his surprise that Newton had already solved the problem i.e. that the force between the sun and planets, resulting in an elliptical orbit, operated according to an inverse square law and that Newton had proved it. Halley and Pepys, the then President of the Royal Society, pressured Newton into writing a book. Newton who was reluctant to publish anything, partly because of his long running dispute with Robert Hooke, only reluctantly agreed, and then only if Halley would undertake all the costs of publication and see the book through the press. Newton is estimated to have completed the manuscript draft inside seventeen months.

With the publication of the Principia, Newton established the modern science of dynamics by formulating his three laws of motion, which appeared here for the first time. Newton applied these laws to Kepler's laws of orbital motion and derived the law of universal gravitation, which explains how all bodies in space and on earth are affected by the force called gravity. Newton thus explained a wide variety of previously unexplained and unrelated phenomena - the eccentric orbit of comets, the tides and their variations, the precession of the earth's axis, and the motion of the moon as well as explaining the behaviour of orbiting bodies, projectiles and pendulums. This work alone was to establish Newton as the greatest of all physical scientists.

The number of copies printed, including reissues, is thought to have been around 250. They sold out immediately upon publication, so any copy of the first edition is a great rarity. This copy is much more than that. It had long been known that Newton, and his asssitant Roger Cotes, had sent copies to other mathematicians for their comment, in order to eliminate any errors in a second edition which was to eventually appear in 1709. At least three of these annotated and corrected copies were known to exist, two in the University of Cambridge Library and the other in the Library of Trinity College. The University of Sydney copy, a fourth of this type, was first noted to exist as late as 1952.

Originally it was thought that the corrections and five pages of manuscript notes relate to the copy given by Newton to the Swiss mathematician Nicolas Fatio de Duillier and completed by Roger Cotes. It has now been determined, after further study, that these notes are in the hand of John Craig, 1663-1731, a noted Scottish mathematician and a friend of Newton who wrote several works on the new calculus. Other marginal annotations, and occasional alterations to the diagrams, are in two other hands, and are based on these main notes and corrections. Those corrections to the diagrams have been claimed to be by Newton himself. Certainly many of them appear in the second edition.

The book was given to the University of Sydney Library in 1961 by a Miss Barbara Bruce-Smith of Bowral. It had been the treasured possession of her father, the late Hon. Arthur Bruce-Smith, barrister and Queen's Counsel, who had been a member of both the New South Wales and Federal Parliaments, and who was one of the drafters of the Constitution.

Bruce-Smith acquired the book in 1908 from a Sydney resident, Mr H.C.Elderton, who had received it as a portion of personal property in an estate which had been in Chancery. According to Elderton, the copy had belonged to a family named James, of Ightham Court in Kent, more specifically one Sir Demetrius James, who is supposed to have been knighted about the year 1685. The Principia, along with a number of other old books, formed a small collection which had been packed away in oak chests stored in an old clock tower where they had remained for nearly 200 years before being brought to Australia.

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