The Newton Papers: The Strange and True Odyssey of Isaac Newton's Manuscripts

  • Sarah Dry
Oxford University Press: 2014 9780199951048 | ISBN: 978-0-1999-5104-8

The last major private repository of manuscripts and correspondence by Isaac Newton and his circle was held in the extraordinary library at Shirburn Castle in Oxfordshire, UK, seat of the earls of Macclesfield. In the late 1970s, I sought access to the documents while pursuing a doctorate at the University of Oxford. I was politely, but firmly, refused. My mentor, Hugh Trevor-Roper, pleaded with the earl, who countered that the last time an Oxonian had entered the library, a book had gone missing. Trevor-Roper apologized on the university's behalf, and asked when the incident had occurred. “In 1747,” came the curt reply.

This anecdote illustrates a key element in The Newton Papers, Sarah Dry's engaging narrative of the fortunes of the towering mathematician's Nachlass — his private papers. These were inaccessible to researchers for more than two centuries after his death in 1727. Had the politician John Conduitt (1688–1737) completed his biography of Newton — based on papers he had inherited through marriage to the scientist's niece — public perception of the great man's persona might well have been different during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the event, people were left to conjure for themselves their perceptions of Newton's character and extra-scientific interests. Mesmerized by his scientific achievement, Enlightenment savants divinized Newton, and presumed that his character corresponded to his genius.

Isaac Newton, painted by Godfrey Kneller in 1702. Credit: Corbis

Access to most of the papers has now been free for four decades, and the Shirburn cache was finally sold in 2000, for well over £6 million (US$10 million), to the Cambridge University Library, UK. Since then, historians have been able to develop a vastly more comprehensive and nuanced understanding of Newton. They have contextualized his scientific pursuits and his life-long interest in areas outside that realm: alchemy, biblical prophecies, and Church and universal history.

Dry's book covers in loving detail and with verve the various permutations of public perception. The speculation began in earnest with the posthumous publication of two of Newton's secret works. In The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended (1728), Newton sought to synchronize sacred and profane history — as reckoned at the time — by shortening Egyptian history by about 1,200 years and Greek history by 500. Observation Upon the Prophecies of Daniel, and the Apocalypse of St. John (1733) shows Newton attempting to rationalize the visions of the biblical books of Daniel and Revelation into a coherent prophetic structure, capable of accounting for past, and potentially future, events. Around this time, anecdotal information on Newton's denial of the Trinity also circulated. But neither the content of his posthumous publications nor hearsay about his heterodox religious opinions tarnished Newton's reputation during the Enlightenment.

Some of Newton's papers, auctioned in 2000. Credit: Stefan Rousseau/PA

Starting with Voltaire's relentless campaign to popularize Newton in the 1730s and 1740s, there emerged a view of the mathematician as the greatest and rarest genius, whose character was equal to his mental prowess. In the 1770s, an opportunity to present a more rounded view presented itself when Samuel Horsley, British mathematician and future bishop of Rochester, was allowed access to some of Newton's private papers for inclusion in a new edition of his work. Ultimately, for reasons that are still not clear, none was included.

In the early nineteenth century, the grandeur of Newton's science remained intact. His reputation, however, was tainted by information suggesting that he had had a nervous breakdown, gleaned from the papers of some of his contemporaries, including Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens and English philosopher John Locke. The first provocateur was French mathematician Jean-Baptiste Biot. In 1822 he published a short biography of Newton that contained the shocking allegation that Newton had gone mad in the early 1690s, and never entirely recovered — which, Biot insinuated, made him fervently devout and inspired his religious writings. In 1835, an edition of letters and memoirs by the first British astronomer royal, John Flamsteed, brought to light Newton's seemingly heartless treatment of Flamsteed. The revelations engendered debates in England and across the Channel, prompting Scottish physicist David Brewster to spring to Newton's defence. His work culminated in 1855 with a magisterial two-volume biography, which mostly glossed over Newton's heterodox religious views.

Along with her narrative of these debates and discussion of how the history of science evolved in England, Dry offers lively portraits of those who enabled the recovery of the “true” Newton. These include the two earls of Portsmouth who owned his papers — Isaac Newton Wallop, who donated the scientific and mathematical manuscripts to Cambridge in 1872, and Gerard Wallop, who put the rest up for auction in 1936 to pay for death duties and his own divorce. Also discussed are the dealers involved in the dispersal of the papers, and the passionate collectors who vied for a share in the spoils — particularly the economist John Maynard Keynes and the polymath Abraham Yahuda. These two acquired a considerable portion of Newton's alchemical and theological manuscripts in the 1936 sale. Keynes and Yahuda's wife later donated their respective collections to King's College, Cambridge, and the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem, finally allowing free access to Newton's nonscientific papers for the first time.

Dry is to be congratulated for furnishing us with a fresh and readable chronicle of the tortuous route that Newton's manuscript took to being made public — ostensibly in accordance with the wishes of the great man.