Newton’s Cambridge papers added to UNESCO register

The Cambridge papers of Sir Isaac Newton, including his notebooks and an annotated copy of Principia Mathematica at Trinity, have been added to UNESCO’s International Memory of the World Register.

A Trinity alumnus and Fellow, Newton is renowned for formulating a version of calculus and the principles of universal gravitation. He was the most famous mathematician of his era and Principia arguably the greatest scientific book ever written.

Isaac Newton with Prism by Quentin Blake
copyright Quentin Blake

Newton entered Trinity College as an undergraduate in 1661 and became a Fellow in 1667. In 1669, he became Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University, a position he held until 1701.

While at Trinity Newton conducted various experiments, including to estimate the speed of sound in Nevile’s Court. Nearly 400 years later, Trinity Fellow, Professor Valerie Gibson, Head of the High Energy Physics Research Group at the Cavendish, recreated this experiment with prospective students on the College’s annual women in STEMM residential.

Newton’s ideas worked out through his experiments and the development of his thoughts on gravity, calculus and optics, are contained in the papers digitised and available via the University Library and Trinity’s Wren Digital Library.

Katrina Dean, Curator of Scientific Collections at Cambridge University Library said that Newton’s papers were among the world’s most important collections in the western scientific tradition. ‘Their addition to the UNESCO International Memory of the World Register recognises their unquestionable international importance’, she said.

The chief attractions in the Cambridge collection are Newton’s own copies of the first edition of the Principia (1687), covered with his corrections, revisions and additions for the second edition. One of these copies of Principia is on display in Trinity’s Wren Library.

Wren and Cloisters from the backs
The Wren Library from the Backs

The Cambridge papers also include significant correspondence with natural philosophers and mathematicians including Henry Oldenberg, Secretary of the Royal Society, Edmond Halley, the Astronomer Royal who persuaded Newton to publish Principia, Richard Bentley, the Master of Trinity College, and John Collins, mathematician and Fellow of the Royal Society, who became an important collector of Newton’s works.

Newton’s mathematical and scientific papers are not the only element of the Cambridge collection added to the UNESCO register.

Among the more personal items is a notebook in which Newton records his daily concerns as an undergraduate and his expenditure, including on white wine, wafers, shoe-strings and ‘a paire of stockings.’ This can be viewed via the Wren Digital Library.

Trinity also holds Newton’s walking stick, his watch, and a lock of hair, items displayed in the Wren Library, which is open to the public, Monday to Friday, 12-2pm, during term time.

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