The Correspondence of Isaac Newton

Primary Contributors:

Robert Iliffe and The Newton Project, with Cultures of Knowledge


Isaac Newton, by Godfrey Kneller. 1702. Oil on canvas, 75.6 by 62.2 cm.
(Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, NPG 2881).

Isaac Newton (1643–1727)

Isaac Newton was born on 25 December 1642 (Julian calendar)/4 January 1643 (Gregorian calendar) in Woolsthorpe, Lincolnshire, the son of Isaac Newton, yeoman farmer, and his wife Hannah, née Ayscough. His father died before his birth. From 1655, he attended King Edward VI School in Grantham, and was admitted as sub-sizar to Trinity College, Cambridge on 5 June 1661. While pursuing the undergraduate curriculum he largely taught himself mathematics and by 1665, the year he graduated BA, he had arrived at the binomial theorem. On account of an outbreak of the plague in Cambridge, he returned to Woolsthorpe from the summer of 1665 to March 1666, and for a second time between June 1666 and the spring of 1667. During these anni mirabiles he produced an early definitive statement of the theory of fluxions and performed his earliest optical experiments. Following his return to Cambridge, Newton was elected minor fellow of Trinity College. In 1668 he incepted MA and was made major fellow. In 1669, his tract De analysi per aequationum numero terminorum infinitis was circulated in manuscript and he succeeded in constructing the reflecting telescope. In the same year, he was appointed successor to Isaac Barrow as Lucasian professor of mathematics. On 11 January 1671/2 (Julian), he was elected fellow of the Royal Society, publishing his ‘New Theory of Light and Colours’ on 8 February. Antagonism from Robert Hooke and, in particular, French and Flemish Jesuit criticism after he had submitted his theory of colours, led him to distance himself from the Society and from natural philosophy in general. In 1676, after Leibniz had requested the derivation of two infinite series, he composed and sent the Epistola prior and the Epistola posterior. In July 1687 he published Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica. During the early 1690s Newton carried out intensive studies on alchemical and theological questions, and began a study of ancient chronology. Having championed resistance to James II, he was elected MP for the University of Cambridge in the convention parliament of 1688/9. He was returned in 1701–02.

In 1696 Newton accepted the wardenship of the Royal Mint, assuming the role of master of the Mint in 1699. On 21 February 1698/9 (Julian)/3 March 1699 (Gregorian), he was elected foreign member of the Académie Royale des Sciences. In 1701, he resigned his fellowship at Trinity and his professorship. Two years later, in November 1703, he was elected president of the Royal Society. With his Opticks, published in 1704, he presented for the first time complete tracts of his mathematics employing the method of fluxions. The second edition of the Principia, which appeared in 1713, was published with the assistance of Roger Cotes. A significant number of years were overshadowed by the priority dispute with Leibniz, Newton devoting considerable effort in compiling the Commercium epistolicum D. Johannis Collins (published December 1712/January 1713) for this purpose. His final years saw diminishing scientific activity but a continued interest in questions of Church history, chronology and Biblical prophecies, and the third edition of the Principia was published in 1726 under the editorship of Henry Pemberton. Newton died on 20 March 1726/7 (Julian)/31 March 1727 (Gregorian) and was interred in Westminster Abbey.

 


Partners and Additional Contributors

Formed in 1998 under the general editorship of Rob Iliffe and Scott Mandelbrote, the Newton Project set out to produce a comprehensive edition of Isaac Newton’s ‘non-scientific’ papers. Since 2007 it has expanded its aims so that its chief goal is to produce a comprehensive edition of all of Newton’s printed and unpublished writings. The project team is based currently at the Faculty of History, University of Oxford, and its core functions have been directed since 1999 by Rob Iliffe. From 2008 to 2014 the project was funded by two major Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Research Grants and two Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) awards. Private funders have also made generous donations to the project, without which the transcription of the scientific and mathematical papers would have been impossible. The Newton Project could not have achieved its goals without major collaborative work undertaken with the Chymistry of Isaac Newton Project at Indiana University; the Newton Project Canada at King’s College, Halifax, Nova Scotia; the Cambridge University Digital Library (CUDL), the National Library of Israel; and the National Archives at Kew, with whom we are partnering at present in documenting Newton’s tenure at the Royal Mint. Further information about partners, funding, and the scholars involved may be may be found in the introductory pages on the Newton Project website.

Thanks are due to Cornelis J. (Kees-Jan) Schilt and Philip Beeley for their contribution of this introductory text, and to EMLO Digital Fellows Lucy Hennings and Alex Hitchman, and to EMLO Editorial Assistant Charlotte Marique, for their help with the preparation of Newton’s correspondence metadata calendared in EMLO.


Key Bibliographic Source(s)

The Correspondence of Isaac Newton, ed. H. W. Turnbull, A. R. Hall, J. F. Scott, and Laura Tilling, 7 vols (Cambridge, 1959–77).


Contents

Newton conducted an extensive correspondence on scientific, family, and official matters relating especially to the Mint. His correspondents include Francis Aston, Catherine Barton, Johann I Bernoulli, Nikolaus I Bernoulli, Jean-Paul Bignon, Josiah Burchett, John Collins, Catherine Conduit, Antonio-Schinella Conti, Roger Cotes, William Derham, J. T. Desaguliers, Nicholas Fatio de Duillier, John Flamsteed, Bernard le Bouvier de Fontenelle, Sidney Godolphin, W. G. ‘sGravesande, David Gregory, James Gregory, Edmond Halley, Elizabeth Johnson, William Jones, John Keill, G. W. Leibniz, John Locke, William Lowndes, Colin Maclaurin, Pierr de Maizeaux, Alexander Menshikov, Abraham de Moivre, Henry Oldenburg, Henry Pemberton, Katherine Rastall, Nicolas Rémond, Pierre Rémond de Monmort, Henri du Sauzet, Hans Sloane, Pierre Varignon, Robert Walpole.

Metadata to describe these letters, 1,140 in total, have been collated from the seven volumes of the Turnbull, et al., edition. Links have been inserted to the catalogue entry, transcriptions, and manuscripts mounted on The Newton Project.

 


Provenance

The history of Newton’s papers is a long and curious one; what follows is but a brief summary. For a rich and detailed narrative of the provenance of Newton’s papers, the reader might consult Sarah Dry, The Newton Papers: The Strange and True Odyssey of Isaac Newton’s Manuscripts (OUP, 2014).

Isaac Newton died intestate, and the majority of his papers ended up the property of his friend, relative by marriage (to Newton’s half-niece Catherine Barton) and successor at the Mint, John Conduitt. Together with Martin Folkes and others, Conduitt edited part of Newton’s chronological and prophecy-related manuscripts, resulting in the publication of The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended (1728) and Observations upon the Prophecies of Daniel and the Apocalypse of St John (1733). Through marriage, the Newton-Conduitt papers came into the possession of the Earls of Portsmouth, who donated them to Cambridge University in 1872. However, the committee overseeing the donation returned all but the scientific and mathematical materials to the previous owners, where they remained until they were auctioned off at Sotheby’s in London in 1936. These papers included materials on alchemy, church history, and prophecy, but also materials related to Newton’s career at the Royal Mint. Eventually, the majority of the alchemical papers came in the possession of the economist, John Maynard Keynes, who bequeathed them to his alma mater King’s College, Cambridge, where they are still. Likewise, the materials on prophecy and church history ended up in the collection of Avraham Shalom Yahuda, now part of the Yahuda Collection in the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem. Other major collections include the materials collected by Grace Babson, now at the Huntington Library in San Marino, CA; the Macclesfield collection, composed of scientific and mathematical papers and correspondence originally collected by the seventeenth-century mathematician and information broker, John Collins; the chronological and theological materials held at New College, Oxford, whose provenance is related to an eighteenth-century attempt to publish more of Newton’s theological writings; and the single but large manuscript on church history held by the Fondation Martin Bodmer in Geneva. Much of the correspondence can be found today in the Library of the Royal Society in London and in the Cambridge collections.


Further resources

The Newton Project

Newton Papers on Cambridge Digital Library

Footprints of the Lion: Isaac Newton at Work, exhibition at Cambridge University Library, 9 October 2001–23 March 2002 (see also in Bibliography, below).

 

Bibliography

 

Sarah Dry, The Newton Papers. The strange and true odyssey of Isaac Newton’s manuscripts (Oxford, 2014).

Derek Gjertsen, The Newton Handbook (London and New York, 1986).

Niccolò Guicciardini, Reading the Principia. The debate on Newton’s mathematical methods for natural philosophy from 1687 to 1736 (Cambridge, 1999).

Niccolò Guicciardini, Isaac Newton on Mathematical Certainty and Method (Cambridge, MA, and London, 2009).

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

A. Rupert Hall, Isaac Newton, Adventurer in Thought (Oxford, 1992).

Rob Iliffe, Newton, A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2007).

Rob Iliffe, The Cambridge Companion to Newton (Cambridge, 2016).

Rob Iliffe, Priest of Nature. The religious worlds of Isaac Newton (Oxford, 2017).

Margaret Jacob, The Newtonians and the English Revolution, 16891720, (Ithaca, NY, 1976).

Alexandre Koyré and I. Bernard Cohen, eds, Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica, 2 vols (Cambridge, MA, 1972).

Scott Mandelbrote, Footprints of the Lion: Isaac Newton at Work (Cambridge: Cambridge University Library, 2001).

Frank E. Manuel, Isaac Newton, Historian (Cambridge, MA, 1963).

Frank E. Manuel, The Religion of Isaac Newton (Oxford, 1974).

William R. Newman, Isaac Newton, Alchemist (Princeton, 2019).

Alan E. Shapiro, ed., The Optical Papers of Isaac Newton, vol. 1 (Cambridge, 1984).

H. W. Turnbull, A. R. Hall, J. F. Scott, and Laura Tilling, eds, The Correspondence of Isaac Newton, 7 vols (Cambridge, 1959–77).

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

Richard S. Westfall, The Life of Isaac Newton (Cambridge, 1993).

D. T. Whiteside, ed., The Mathematical Papers of Isaac Newton, 8 vols (Cambridge, 1967–80).

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