Other Attempts to Publish Newton's Papers

Opera Omnia

Many early modern scientists and mathematicians have been honoured by having their collected works published in printed editions. For example, Christiaan Huygens, Johannes Kepler, René Descartes, Galileo Galilei, Gottfried Leibniz, Robert Boyle and Leonhard Euler have all been well served by modern editions, some of which have still not reached completion after nearly a century. In each case, these enterprises have sought to publish as comprehensive a sample as possible of their subjects' work according to the best of contemporary editorial practice. For the most part these have been lavish, national undertakings financed from the public purse. Apart from the national edition (under the editorship of Antonio Favaro) of Le Opere di Galileo Galilei, 20 vols, (Florence: G. Barbèra, 1890-1909), the Ministère de l'Instruction Publique sponsored the Adam and Tannery edition of the Œuvres de Descartes, while the Œuvres Complètes de Christiaan Huygens (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1888-1950) was published in 22 volumes by the Société Hollandaise des Sciences. Although these men are now known for their contributions to science and mathematics, in fact their collected works aimed at the publication not merely of their non-scientific works, but also (where possible) of their unpublished writings, such as drafts and personal correspondence.

The publication of the complete writings of these individuals, in many cases including their notes and marginalia, allows historians to come to a more balanced assessment of the life and work of their subject. In the case of Newton, the publication of all his writings presents an opportunity to understand the interrelations of different aspects of his work, and to see more accurately how his attitudes changed over long periods of time.

Newton's Collected Works

Whatever the state of scholarly interest in the alchemical, theological and Mint papers, plans -- motivated in part by the lavish undertakings then being pursued across the Channel -- were occasionally proposed to produce a more up to date edition of his scientific works. In 1924, the President of the Royal Astronomical Society, J.L.E. Dreyer, delivered a Presidential Address calling for the nation to honour the bicentenary of Newton's death (in 1927) with a new edition of his scientific works. Horsley suffered further brickbats, accused of almost completely ignoring unpublished materials and of providing nothing in the way of introduction or notes. Nor did he list the variants in his printed works published during Newton's lifetime: 'the poverty and insufficiency of this old edition,' Dreyer went on, 'becomes very glaring, when one compares it with any of the standard editions ... such as the magnificent Œuvres Complètes de Christiaan Huygens.' (Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, vol. lxxxiv.4 (February, 1924), 298). Dreyer, already the author of a scientific biography of Tycho Brahe and a general history of pre-Keplerian astronomy, did not waste time considering the merits of publishing the alchemical papers and thought it would be 'hardly worth while' to print the theological and chronological papers again. He also noted that it was 'utterly deplorable' that, on taking up his administrative duties for the Crown, 'the transcendent genius of Newton should for many years afterwards be wasted on office work, which hundreds of people could have done equally (or at least sufficiently) well' (ibid. 300). Nevertheless, he conceded that the work of Edleston and Rouse Ball constituted a basis on which to start the new edition of his scientific papers. The lack of such a collection, he lamented, was a 'deplorable gap', and he concluded by asking his audience: 'Whose portrait hangs over your President's chair? -- Newton's. Whose image adorns the gold medal, the greatest mark of your appreciation which you can give to an astronomer? -- Newton's' (ibid. 303).

Following this Address, the eminent astronomer R.A. Sampson drew attention in the same journal (vol. lxxxiv, (March 1924), 378-83) to an earlier proposal in which the Cambridge Philosophical Society had produced a scheme to publish an edition of Newton's works in cooperation with Cambridge University Press. Under Sampson's editorship, the plan had been to produce six small quarto volumes of approximately 600 pages each, with a projected completion date of c.1910. In addition to newer editions of the more famous scientific and non-scientific works, and an entire volume devoted to a new English translation of the Principia, he proposed to use manuscripts from the Portsmouth Collection, as well as the optical lectures that Newton had delivered as Lucasian Professor from January 1670 (versions of which had been deposited in the University Library in accordance with the obligations of the Professorship). However, due to other demands on his time, Sampson was unable to bring the plans for the project to fruition. He noted that this was extremely regrettable and commented that such a project was 'an historical task, and, in a sense, one of national importance, but for the advancement of science it matters only in moderate degree' (ibid. 381). Sampson had little to say about the rest of Newton's archive, although bearing in mind 'how much thought and labour he concentrated on the matter,' he explicitly dissented from the generally negative opinion of Newton's alchemical pursuits. Finally, he warned that any self-respecting editor would have to be absorbed in Newton's 'defunct' world for many years, and 'probably he would never quite find his way out of it' (ibid. 382).

Editions of Newton's Scientific Papers

Historians are now more confident than was Sampson about their ability to extricate themselves from the baroque maze of Newton's intellectual pursuits. However, producing an edition of Newton's entire oeuvre was another matter and following the failure of proposals such as those by Sampson and Dreyer, it was clear that it would be a major undertaking merely to produce modern scholarly editions of Newton's printed scientific works. With this in mind, the Royal Society formed a 'Newton Letters Committee' in 1938 under the chairmanship of Sir Charles Sherrington to discuss the more limited project of publishing Newton's correspondence. The collation of letters continued during the Second World War and after Sherrington's death a new committee headed by E.N. da C. Andrade was formed in 1947 to produce a definitive edition of his correspondence. With able assistance from H.W. Robinson, J.F. Scott and others, H.W. Turnbull became the initial chief editor of this project (he was succeeded after his death by A.R. Hall), and the 7 volume set was published between 1959 and 1977. In his introduction to the first volume of the Newton Correspondence, Andrade estimated that the entire archive comprised about 3.6 million words, or about 25 volumes of the sort making up the Newton Correspondence. With microfilms of the bulk of Newton's papers now available to act as a guide, the exact figure is almost certainly higher, in the region of 6.5 to 7 million words.

Interest in the extraordinary impact of Newton's scientific work expanded dramatically in the second half of the twentieth century, and the analysis of his private and published writings has formed a central part of the burgeoning discipline of history of science. The majority of his most significant scientific texts have been edited in the last few decades, and hundreds of articles have been composed about Newton's optics, physics and mathematics, forming part of what has been called the Newton 'industry'. Rupert and Marie Boas Hall published an important selection from the Portsmouth collection in Unpublished Scientific Papers of Isaac Newton, (Cambridge, 1962), and three years later John Herivel published the most significant of Newton's researches into mechanics in The Background to Newton's 'Principia', (Oxford, 1965). I. Bernard Cohen's Introduction to Newton's 'Principia', (Cambridge 1971) is an indispensable guide to the creation and reception of Newton's masterwork, while Cohen and Anne Whitman have recently completed a new translation of the Principia (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, 1999). Cohen also edited a collection of Newton's published papers and letters on natural philosophy, the second edition of which appeared from Harvard University Press in 1978. The most monumental edition of any portion of Newton's work to date is Tom Whiteside's The Mathematical Papers of Isaac Newton, 8 vols, (Cambridge, 1967-81), while Alan Shapiro is editing Newton's optical papers, of which the first volume (of three) was published by Cambridge University Press in 1984.

Scientific Papers

We have now begun placing Newton's scientific papers on-line, although we are at a very early stage of the operation and it will be years before we can offer anything approaching a complete overview. In the meantime those interested can consult the following:

H.W. Turnbull et al., eds, The Correspondence of Isaac Newton 7 vols (Cambridge, 1959-77)

A.R. Hall and M.B. Hall, eds, Unpublished Scientific Papers of Isaac Newton (Cambridge, 1962)

I.B. Cohen and R.S. Schofield, eds, Isaac Newton's Letters and Papers on Natural Philosophy (Cambridge, Mass., 1970)

J.E. McGuire, Certain Philosophical Questions : Newton's Trinity Notebook (Cambridge, 1983)

A. Shapiro, ed., The Optical Papers of Isaac Newton. vol. 1: The Optical Lectures (1670-72) 3 vols (Cambridge, 1984- )

R.S. Westfall, Never at Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton (Cambridge, 1980)

D.T. Whiteside, ed., The Mathematical Papers of Isaac Newton 8 vols (Cambridge, 1967-81)

© 2014 The Newton Project

Professor Rob Iliffe
Director, AHRC Newton Papers Project

Scott Mandelbrote,
Fellow & Perne librarian, Peterhouse, Cambridge

Sponsored by:

  • University of Sussex
  • Arts and Humanities Research Council
  • JISC