Newton in the Lab
While William Marshall Bullitt (1873-1957) is best remembered as a successful lawyer and outspoken critic of Alger Hiss, he had two private passions: mathematics and book collecting. In 1936, inspired by a discussion with mathematician G.H. Hardy, Bullitt set out to acquire first edition texts by 25 of history’s most influential mathematicians. A decade later, he had assembled more than 300 volumes by 60 mathematicians and astronomers.
Upon Bullitt’s death, his collection was donated to the University of Louisville, where it now makes up the William Marshall Bullitt Collection of Rare Mathematics and Astronomy. “The University of Louisville has been committed to providing an unusual degree of access to the rare volumes in this collection,” says Delinda Stephens Buie, Curator of Rare Books at the University of Louisville’s Archives and Special Collections. “We are determined to offer them through teaching and exhibition, and to scholars in our research room.”
Several volumes from the collection recently came to CCAHA for treatment, thanks to a grant from the Stockman Family Foundation. Each of the treatises, which were published between 1537 and 1713, represents an important moment in the history of scientific publication. Two of these texts were written by Sir Isaac Newton.
Newton’s most famous work is his Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principals of Natural Philosophy)—today, simply referred to as Principia. Published in 1687, the text answered scientific questions with mathematical answers, laying the foundation for the modern field of physics and shaking the scholarly community to its core.
In Principia, Newton proposed three laws of motion. The first law states that an object in motion remains in motion. The second shows that the force on an object can be calculated by multiplying its mass and acceleration (F=ma). The third law states that any force on an object is met with an equal and opposite force. Building off of these three principles, Newton also proposed a law of universal gravitation and theory on planetary movement. The publication of Principia launched Newton into the stratosphere of 17th-century scientific celebrity. The work’s legacy is staggering—some credit the text for single-handedly inspiring the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions.
Even a work as monumental as Principia will have errors, however. Printing in the 1680s was a lengthy process. If discrepancies were discovered after the main text was printed, an “errata” sheet was commonly added to the volume. It is this errata sheet that makes the University of Louisville’s Principia particularly notable.