Newton’s notebooks published online

Isaac Newton’s own annotated copy of his Principia Mathematica is being released online by Cambridge University, kicking off a project to create one of the world’s most important digital libraries.

Cambridge University Library is starting off with some 4,000 pages of Newton’s most important works, and plans to follow up with other world-class collections in the realms of science and faith. These include the archive of the Board of Longitude and the papers of Charles Darwin.

“Over the course of six centuries Cambridge University Library’s collections have grown from a few dozen volumes into one of the world’s great libraries, with an extraordinary accumulation of books, maps, manuscripts and journals,” says university librarian Anne Jarvis.

“These cover every conceivable aspect of human endeavour, spanning most of the world’s cultural traditions.”

Work on the project began last year, with the Newton collection being photographed over the summer of 2011. At full speed, 200 pages were captured each day. However, conservation work had to be undertaken on several of the manuscripts and notebooks before they were in good enough shape enough to be digitised.

Members of the public will now be able to zoom in on each page to explore the text in detail. They can also read transcriptions of what Grant Young, digitisation manager at the library, says are some of the most important papers and documents in the history of science.

“In addition to his Principia and notebooks, we’ve included his ‘Waste Book’ – a very large notebook Newton inherited from his stepfather and filled with notes and calculations when he was forced to leave his studies in Cambridge during the Great Plague,” he says.

“With plenty of time and paper to hand, Newton was able to make significant breakthroughs, particularly in his understanding of calculus.”

While Newton’s works are now, well, rather highly thought of, this wasn’t always the case.

The words ‘not fit to be printed’ are scrawled across many pages, afterThomas Pellet, a Fellow of the Royal Society, was asked to go through Newton’s papers after his death and decide which ones should be published.

The collection’s available here.