The Most Expensive Scientific Book in the World

atkins-bookshelf-booksWere it not for the enthusiastic endorsement and financial assistance of British astronomer Edmond Halley, (who computed the orbit of Halley’s Comet), one of the most important works in the history of science would never had been written — Philosophiae Naturalis Principe Mathematica (The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy by Sir Isaac Newton. The seminal work, known as Principia Mathematica or just simply Principia, consists of three books, setting forth Newton’s laws of motion and Newton’s law of universal gravitation. Commenting on Newton’s magnum opus, Keith Moore, librarian of the Royal Society library, noted: “[The Principia’s importance is] not just the history and development of science; it’s one of the greatest books ever published. It was hugely influential in terms of applying mathematics to basic physical problems.” Fellow genius Albert Einstein adds that the book is “perhaps the greatest intellectual stride that it has ever been granted to any man to make.”

Halley was a Fellow and Council member of the prestigious Royal Society in London. In the summer of 1684, Halley approached Newton regarding questions about planetary motion; Newton mentioned that he had already solved the central problems of celestial mechanics some time ago but could not find the specific papers containing his demonstrations. In November, Newton sent Halley a 9-page manuscript, De mot corporal in gyrum (Of the motion of bodies in an orbit), an expanded version of his earlier work on planetary motion. Halley was so excited by Newton’s tract that he enthusiastically encouraged him to develop it into a larger work. Because the Royal Society had already blown their publishing budget on the lavishly illustrated De Historia Piscium (The History of Fishes) by Francis Willughby, Halley agreed to personally finance the Principia. A very curious footnote: the Piscium sold so poorly that it depleted the finances of the Royal Society; when it came time to pay Halley’s annual salary (50 pounds), he was paid with unsold copies of Piscium!

Newton wrote the Principia in Latin between 1684 and 1686 (Halley, of course, edited the book); he presented the manuscript of Book 1 to the Royal Society at the end of April 1686. The president of the Royal Society, Samuel Pepys, officially endorsed the first book two months later, paving the way for its publication. The book, measuring 237 by 186mm with 252 pages, was first published on July 5, 1687. Revised and expanded editions were published in 1713 and 1726; the first English edition was printed in 1728.

In 1687, 80 first editions, known as the continental editions, were printed and bound for distribution in continental Europe. Publisher and bookseller Samuel Smith bound two of them in burgundy goatskin with intricate inlaid gold decorations and gilt edges. Only two of these have come up for auction: the presentation copy given to King James II was sold for $2.5 million in December 6, 2013. Recently, another beautiful first edition of Principia was sold for $3.7 million on December 14, 2016 — setting a new world record for the most expensive printed scientific book ever sold at auction.

Appropriately, in the preface of the Principia, Newton acknowledges Halley’s tremendous contribution: “Mr. Edmund Halley not only assisted me with his pains in correcting the press and taking care of the schemes, but it was his solicitations that its becoming public is owing; for when he had obtained of me my demonstrations of the figure of the celestial orbits, he continually pressed me to communicate the same to the Royal Society.”

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For further reading: A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson (2004)æ_Naturalis_Principia_Mathematica


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