Researchers uncover 'hundreds' of long-lost Isaac Newton's famous works: 'We felt like Sherlock Holmes'

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One of the most famous scientific works produced by Sir Isaac Newton hundreds of years ago is getting new light after two historians uncovered copies of the first edition in 27 countries, more than double the amount previously known.

The book "Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica," also known as the "Principia," was first published in 1687 in Latin and discusses time, gravity and the forces of motion. It was believed that there were only 189 copies of the book when they were last counted in 1953, but a new study has identified 386 copies and it's possible that an additional 200 of them exist somewhere in private and public collections. 

"We felt like Sherlock Holmes," said Mordechai (Moti) Feingold, one of the historians and lead author of the study discussing the achievement, in a statement. 

Isaac Newton’s own writing can be seen here in a copy of the 17th-century masterpiece, Principia, located at The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens. Newton would correct errors in the text and make editorial additions, some of which were included in later editions of the Principia. (Credit: Babson College’s Grace K. Babson Collection of the Works of Sir Isaac Newton/The Huntington Library, San Marino, California)

The study has been published in the journal Annals of Science. 

"One of the realizations we've had is that the transmission of the book and its ideas was far quicker and more open than we assumed, and this will have implications on the future work that we and others will be doing on this subject," Feingold added.

Feingold and his co-author, Andrej Svorenčík, discovered copies of the book around the globe, including Slovakia, Czech Republic, Japan, Hungary and more.

Caltech’s own copy of the first edition of the Principia is part of the Institute’s Archives and Special Collections. (Credit: SWNS)

The person primarily responsible for publishing "Principia" was Edmond Halley, a well-known English scientist and the astronomer Halley's Comet is named after. 

That the book, which was recognized as "a work of genius" soon after its publication, was so widely read and distributed suggests to Feingold and Svorenčík that people understood it in greater detail than previously believed.

"When you look through the copies themselves, you might find small notes or annotations that give you clues about how it was used," Svorenčík explained. "You look at the condition of the ownership marks, the binding, deterioration, printing differences, et cetera."

"It's harder to show how much people engaged with a book than simply owned it, but we can look at the notes in the margins and how the book was shared," Feingold added. "You can assume that for each copy, there are multiple readers. It's not like today, where you might buy a book and are the only one to read it. And then we can look for an exchange of ideas between the people sharing copies. You start to put together the pieces and solve the puzzle."

The book is extremely valuable and has been sold at auction with prices ranging from $300,000 to more than $3 million, largely sold by auction houses, as well as the black market.

In 2016, a copy of the book sold for $3.7 million, making it the most expensive printed scientific book sold at auction at the time. 


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