Read Sir Isaac Newton’s Works Online

Cambridge University is digitizing its collection of works by Newton and other revolutionary scientists of the past

The Wren Library, Trinity College, Cambridge University
The Wren Library, Trinity College, Cambridge University Courtesy of flickr user reinholdbehringer

The Wren Library at Cambridge’s Trinity College is as quiet as any library can be. Break the silence with a cough, and the sound echoes up two stories to the top of the ceiling. It seems too grand a space for anyone to work and yet, nestled between the grand wooden bookshelves, the desks are filled with patrons. The library, designed by Christopher Wren and completed in 1695, is open to the public for a few hours each week, and tourists can amble through the center of the room and peek into exhibition cases filled with items from the library’s special collections. One of the books that is always on display is Sir Isaac Newton‘s own first edition copy of Philosophiæ naturalis principia mathematica. (That’s the book in which Newton established the three laws of motion.)

When I visited the Wren Library a couple years ago, seeing Newton’s Principia was definitely a highlight, even if a piece of glass did sit between me and the pages. This copy is full of Newton’s own notes–no other copy of this groundbreaking work is quite this special. But now you don’t have to travel all the way to England to read Newton’s own hand. The Cambridge University Library has put online digital copies of Principia and other Newton works, along with his college notebooks and other notes. More works are soon to come.

“You can see Newton’s mind at work in the calculations and how his thinking was developing,” Grant Young, the university library’s digitization manager, told the Guardian.

The project has done more than simply put images of each page online–Cambridge is working with scholars to provide transcriptions of the texts, which will make reading and searching much easier.

The Newton works are the first part of what Cambridge is calling the “Foundations of Science Collection”:

In addition to our Newton collections, the Library holds the papers of, among many other famous scientists, Charles Darwin, Lord Kelvin, Adam Sedgwick, J.J. Thomson, Ernest Rutherford, James Clerk Maxwell and Sir George Gabriel Stokes. The Library holds the archives of Cambridge’s famous Cavendish Laboratory and is also the repository of the Royal Greenwich Observatory archives, which includes the papers of the Astronomers Royal and the Board of Longitude.

Cambridge has a long and wonderful history of science, from Newton to Darwin to Watson & Crick. It’s good to see the Library make the effort to share the words and works of these titans with the rest of the world.

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