Archive Watch: Cambridge Digital Library Starts Off by Posting Newton’s Papers

A page of calculations from Newton's "Waste Book" notebook. Image courtesy of Cambridge U. Library.

The Cambridge Digital Library has opened its virtual doors by posting more than 4,000 digitized pages from its collection of Sir Isaac Newton’s papers, the University of Cambridge announced this week. Online visitors can now browse through the scientist’s college notebooks and early papers; his notes on optics; his so-called Waste Book, a notebook he began using in 1664 when he fled Cambridge because of the plague, and which contains some of his breakthroughs in calculus; and an annotated first edition of his Philosophiæ naturalis principia mathematica, often called the Principia, which made him famous for his work on the laws of motion and gravity.

“Anyone, wherever they are, can see at the click of a mouse how Newton worked and how he went about developing his theories and experiments,” Grant Young, digitization manager at the library, said in the announcement. “Newton’s copy of the Principia shows how methodically he worked through his text: marking alterations, crossing out and annotating his work in preparation for the second edition. Before today, anyone who wanted to see these things had to come to Cambridge. Now we’re bringing Cambridge University Library to the world.”

More Newton papers will be added to the online library in the coming months. After that, the library will begin posting digitized portions of its holdings “in the realms of science and faith,” says the announcement. That includes the papers of Charles Darwin and of the Board of Longitude, established in 1714 by the British government to encourage inventors and scientists to crack the problem of how to locate longitude at sea.

To get the Newton papers online, Cambridge worked with the Newton Project at the University of Sussex. The London-based Polonsky Foundation gave Cambridge £1.5-million, or more than $2.3-million, to help support the digitization and the development of the technical infrastructure required for the digital library. Britain’s Joint Information Systems Committee, or JISC, gave the two universities money to support what it called the “Windows on Genius” program of digitization and transcription.

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