A page from a different copy of 'Principia Mathematica' that is housed at the University of Cambridge. Credit: Cambridge University Library

A First Edition of Isaac Newton's 'Principia Mathematica' Is About to Go Up For Auction

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JOSH HRALA
7 DEC 2016
 

A rare, first edition copy of Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica – known in Latin as Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica – will go up for auction at Christie’s auction house in New York on December 14, where experts predict it will sell for around US$1 million.

The text was first printed way back in 1687 and lays out the foundations of classical physics, Newton’s law of universal gravitation, and the scientist’s own version of Kepler’s laws of planetary motion.

 

Needless to say, with only 400 copies of the first edition ever printed, Principia is a major piece of scientific history that someone will soon be lucky (or rich) enough to add to their personal collection.

"It’s not just the history and development of science; it’s one of the greatest books ever published," Keith Moore, head of the Royal Society library, told Jasper Jackson at The Guardian.

"It was hugely influential in terms of applying mathematics to basic physical problems."

The specific copy that will soon be up for grabs is a 'continental' (read: export) version of the book that has been wrapped in a modern leather cover, which experts think was meant to be shipped to countries in Europe because it contained minor edits that did not appear in copies circulated through Britain.

These changes were specifically designed by Newton and his editor Edmond Halley, a famed astronomer in his own right who – as you might recognise – has a comet named after him.

Out of the 400 total first edition copies, roughly 20 percent were the continental version, making this auction piece even rarer.

But don't worry, the changes are very minor things related to wording, so it still offers all the authentic science of the original.

So far, there has only been one other copy of the book sold at auction. As Christie’s explains:

"According to American Book Prices Current, only one other copy of Newton's Principia bound in contemporary morocco has sold at auction in the past 47 years: the presentation copy to King James II, sold Christie’s New York, 6 December 2013, lot 170, $2,517,000.

The present copy, in a superb inlaid morocco binding executed by the publisher Samuel Smith’s binder and bearing his morocco presentation label – and from the scarcer Continental issue – is of the greatest bibliophile importance."

 

While anyone who has a love for science or rare books in general would be overjoyed to have such an important work in their library, who can afford such an expensive object?

"People who have big books these days maybe are the kinds of people who have made their money on the internet or the web. If you have a few million quid to spend, why wouldn’t you buy a copy of Principia Mathematica?" Moore told The Guardian

"If you’ve made your money from a really cool algorithm, you will probably appreciate Newtonian physics."

Principia is right up there with Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, though over the last century or so – thanks mainly to Einstein’s work – Principia has slid down the ranks of academic text lists.

Even so, it is one of the most important books ever written.

Other notable pieces of scientific history that have hit the auction block recently include Einstein's leather jacket, sold to a buyer for US$150,000, and in 2015, NASA accidentally auctioned off an Apollo 11 sample bag for just US$995, which they ended up regretting.

The book auction is set for 14 December at Christie’s auction house in New York City. So... start saving.

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