Newton’s Notes Now Online

Cambridge University has published 4,000 pages of manuscripts by Sir Isaac Newton, including his handwritten annotations. It’s the first stage of a digitization process that will eventually see documents from the likes of Charles Darwin and Ernest Rutherford put online.

The Newton papers are, alongside Islamic manuscripts, the first documents to appear online as part of the Cambridge Digital Library, a project that involves up to 200 pages from the university’s printed collection being digitized each day. The initial batch published this month makes up around 20 percent of its total Newton collection.

Newton was both a student at Cambridge and a lecturer holding the “Lucasian Chair of Mathematics.” The collection includes copies of his lectures that he was required to deposit through his job, along with other papers passed down to his family.

Among the documents already online is Newton’s book Philosphiae Naturalis Principa Mathematica, his 1687 work that explains his three laws of motion. The book is undoubtedly one of the most important in scientific history and could arguably be described as the basis of physics.

The specific copy that’s been scanned is Newton’s personal copy of the first edition, complete with his notes and corrections. These are particularly significant as the second edition contained revisions designed to better explain gravity.

The collection also includes a “waste book” (a 17th century equivalent to an exercise book) that originally belonged to Newton’s stepfather, a priest, and was later used by Newton. This means it contains an unlikely mix of theological thoughts and mathematical calculations.

Both books are available in scanned versions, while the university hopes to have a searchable transcript of the waste book available early next year.

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