Lot 242

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Sir Isaac Newton Scientific Autograph Manuscript Relating to the "Principia"

2pp (front and back), measuring 1.625" x 7.25", no place, Ca. 1715-25. A rare and important autograph manuscript relating to the Principia, formerly in the Honeyman Collection of Scientific Books and Manuscripts (# 1224). “Thought to relate to Newton’s De Mundi Systemate” – i.e. Book III of the Principia – this manuscript is a set of mathematical notes containing several types of calculations and data-points relevant to the physics of Book III. One side is filled with calculations, while the other side has a short note by Newton along with a calculation. The text reads in part: "And that of Aldebaran - And that of Spica & that of Arcturus counting these longitudes not from the middes of the signes but from the Vernal Equinox/ And so of the rest of the fixed stars." With toning throughout and areas where the ink from one side is visible on the other side. Uneven edges and minor paper loss at the lower corner. The last time a Newton Principia-related autograph manuscript came on the market, in October 1999, it sold for nearly 1/4 million dollars. Prior to that, the last sales were thirty years ago (February 1991) and forty-two years ago (May 1979).

This manuscript is considerably richer in content than the Honeyman cataloguing would suggest. The Honeyman description of this manuscript as an “Autograph scientific fragment consisting of calculations of longitude and comments on the position of Aldebaran and other fixed stars” is largely a description of only one side of the manuscript. When we examine the different data-points of this manuscript, we recognize their potential relevance to other topics addressed in Book III of the Principia. Indeed, moving beyond the Honeyman description, when the data points are more deeply considered in their collectivity the manuscript appears most related to Newton’s revolutionary study of comets.

In looking at the details of this manuscript, we note that while Aldebaran and especially Spica are certainly stars named in Book III of the Principia, we find that they are cited exclusively in a context of positioning the longitude of comets. And when we examine the obverse side of the manuscript, we are immediately confronted with the number “29.51”: the exact longitudinal positioning of the 1680 comet on the first day it was observed (Nov 3). Very significantly, Newton would appear to be thinking of this number in context of a lettered diagram; and the letters correlate with this “29.51” term – KPH -- are precisely those Newton ultimately chose to demarcate the earth’s orbit in the famous Principia plate tracking the path of the 1680 comet. Accurately tracking and positioning a comet in the 17th century was a complex procedure involving many different types of measurements and reckonings, and some of the data in this manuscript [(specifically: the values between 9 and 11 computed to 5 and 6 decimal places)] suggests that Newton is perhaps measuring (in Astronomical Units) the distance of a comet in relationship to the planet Saturn. The further data point of “50.40” (found immediately below the “29.51” term) suggests that Newton might also here be considering the precession of the equinoxes as a factor in the calculation of cometary positioning (50.40 being almost exactly the minutes of arc the equinoxes precess in the course of a year) – a possibility given additional support by the fact Newton here explicitly states that he is measuring the fixed stars Aldebaran, Spica, and Arcturus with relation to “the vernal equinox”. [This was Flamsteed’s method of calculating positioning, a man from whom Newton derived much of his data about the comet of 1680].

This manuscript is typical of Newton’s working method. Preoccupied with a problem, Newton would grab whatever scrap of paper was to hand and begin making notes. And if the contents of the notes were deemed of sufficient importance to his work, Newton would retain them (even if they were damaged: cp Newton’s fire-burned calculations about the value of the cubit recently sold at Sotheby’s for over $520,000. This particular manuscript is similar in kind to two other Principia-related notes from the Honeyman Collection, and it bears further comparison with Newton’s manuscript note practicing the wording of the famous phrase “hypotheses non fingo” -- I do not frame hypotheses – sold at Christie’s in 1999 for over $230,000. Though Newton was a notorious hoarder of paper and of his own manuscripts, the preservation of this small manuscript note is unusual even for him; and we are inclined to think that Newton’s retention of the document is a testimony to its intellectual importance to his work.

Though the definitive interpretation of this enigmatic manuscript remains a matter for future scholarly investigation and discussion — and though Newton’s interest in n the positioning of the stars (and the precession of the equinoxes) also has relevance to his work on “The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended” — in our interpretation of this manuscript’s data, we think, together with the Honeyman scholars, that this manuscript relates to Newton’s Principia. More specifically, we think this manuscript relevant to the revisions Newton made to the definitive third edition of the Principia published in 1726. It is only in the 1726 edition that Newton first records “29.51” as the earliest observed longitudinal positioning of the 1680 comet; and it is also there that he first alphabetically demarcates the plate illustrating the track of this comet. Though the Honeyman catalogue does not assign a date to this manuscript, our argument points at a date of c. 1715-25.

Taking us deep into Newton’s mind, the present manuscript gives us an inside view of the science Newton is in process of creating. Here we see Newton juggling concrete and complex details looking for their application to his breakthrough theory of comets – the crowning proof of his theory of gravity. Though small in size, the manuscript is of great critical importance as a historical document illuminating the process whereby Newton revised and perfected the argument of the Principia. Formally unpublished and unstudied, the precise interpretation of this manuscript is formally unpublished and unstudied.

Called “The System of the World,” Book III of the Principia is “a sustained evidential argument for the theory” of gravity. Newton developed evidence for the theory of gravity throughout the Principia, but in this concluding book of the work he especially and explicitly applies his gravitational theory to the analysis of major astronomical phenomena. Book III contains Newton’s gravity-based analysis of the orbits of the planets and our moon, the production of the tides, and the precession of the equinoxes, with the book triumphantly climaxing in Newton’s calculation of the parabolic trajectory around the sun of the 1680 comet. The study of comets was a central concern for Newton as he worked on the Principia. The last portion of the 1687 Principia manuscript to be completed, the section on comets was given pride of place in the Principia as the culminating demonstration of the power of Newton’s theory of gravity. And the comet of 1680 in particular was the linchpin of his demonstration, Newton using his data for this comet to demonstrate -- for the first time -- how a comet’s orbital parameters could be calculated and its trajectory predicted. Newton repeatedly returned to the study of comets as he revised the text of the Principia over the course of 40 years, significantly revising the section on comets in each of the second and the third editions of the Principia. Indeed so greatly was Newton concerned with comets, that some scholars (e.g., Hughes, “The Principia and Comets”) view the Principia as “a formidable textbook on comets.”

This item comes with a Certificate from John Reznikoff, a premier authenticator for both major 3rd party authentication services, PSA and JSA (James Spence Authentications), as well as numerous auction houses.


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