How a book about fish nearly sank Isaac Newton's Principia

Poor sales of lavishly illustrated book forced Royal Society to go back on promise to finance publication of Newton's Principia

View a gallery of images from the Royal Society's new online picture library

It was a salutary lesson for the Royal Society and made clear that the formidable intelligence of its scientific membership was no guarantee of sound business judgement.

The debacle played out in the 17th century when the country's most prestigious scientific organisation ploughed its money into the lavishly illustrated Historia Piscium, or History of Fishes, by John Ray and Francis Willughby.

Though groundbreaking in 1686, the book flopped and nearly broke the bank, forcing the Royal Society to withdraw from its promise to finance the publication of Newton's Principia, one of the most important works in the history of science.

Today, digital images from Historia Piscium, including a stunning engraving of a flying fish, are made available with more than a thousand others in a new online picture archive launched by the Royal Society.

The images span the society's 350-year history and include highlights from Robert Hooke's 17th century engravings of objects under the microscope; a committee member's doodle of Thomas Huxley from 1882; and the first sighting of a kangaroo, or perhaps a wallaby, by James Cook and the sailors aboard the Endeavour expedition in 1770. Notes accompanying the latter picture state: "it was of a light mouse colour, and in size and shape very much resembling a greyhound."

Among Hooke's illustrations are ink drawings of snowflakes, furrows in ice flakes, and patterns formed on the surface of frozen urine.

Staff will continually add to the archive, so that a growing selection of the society's images becomes available online.

Though Ray and Willughby's masterpiece delayed the publication of Newton's Principia, it was saved from obscurity by Edmund Halley, then Clerk at the Royal Society, who raised the funds to publish the work, providing much of the money from his own pocket. The Principia was eventually published in 1687.

After publishing the work, the Royal Society told Halley it could no longer afford his salary and offered to pay him in unsold copies of the Historia Piscium instead.

"While it may seem surprising to some people that the early fellows of the Royal Society nearly passed up the opportunity to publish Newton's Principia, we mustn't forget that Halley, Newton, Ray and Willughby were all working in the very earliest days of the scientific revolution," said Jonathan Ashmore, chair of the society's library committee.

Ashmore added that he hoped people using the picture archive would appreciate why early fellows of the society were so impressed by Willughby's illustrations.


Ian Sample, science correspondent

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Google celebrates Isaac Newton's birthday with a falling apple doodle

Today, Google has a surprising animated logo to celebrate the birthday of one of the world's greatest scientists, Sir Isaac Newton, who was born on Christmas day in 1642

Jack Schofield

04, Jan, 2010 @2:00 PM

Article image
From young Mozart to black holes, 350 years of the Royal Society go online

Britain's academy of the sciences marks anniversary with online archive including letters from Newton and Captain Cook

Ian Sample, science correspondent

30, Nov, 2009 @12:05 AM

Article image
First edition of Isaac Newton's Principia set to fetch $1m at auction
Rare European copy of key mathematics text is going under hammer at Christie’s in New York with record guide price

Jasper Jackson

05, Dec, 2016 @12:01 AM

Article image
Isaac Newton's falling apple tale drops into the web

Royal Society publishes memoirs of William Stukeley, 18th century author with firsthand account of scientist's discovery

Alok Jha

18, Jan, 2010 @12:05 AM

Article image
Sir Isaac Newton's own annotated Principia Mathematica goes online

Cambridge University gives the public access to digitised science papers, revealing the calculations of famous minds

Stephen Bates

12, Dec, 2011 @12:05 AM

Article image
Isaac Newton's apple tree to experience zero gravity – in space
British-born Nasa astronaut to take piece of tree that aided scientist's discovery of gravity to international space station

Richard Luscombe in Miami

09, May, 2010 @1:32 PM

Article image
Picture library captures Royal Society's rich history

The Royal Society has launched an online archive of fascinating images, including flying fish and the death mask of Isaac Newton

19, Apr, 2012 @11:54 AM

Article image
Possible Worlds and Other Essays by JBS Haldane – review | Tim Radford | Science Book Club

Tim Radford: It is the fate of good scientists to be overtaken or overturned, but if they write like Haldane they are unlikely to be overlooked

Tim Radford

27, Apr, 2012 @6:30 AM

Albert Einstein: Sep 17

PD Smith celebrates the centenary of Einstein's theory of relativity, as he rounds up the best of the current crop of books on the 20th century's greatest scientist.

PD Smith

16, Sep, 2005 @11:15 PM

Observer review: Einstein

It is 100 years since Albert Einstein burst from obscurity with his world-changing theories. Robin McKie enjoys the best accounts of a godless failed husband, bohemian pacifist and universal genius.

Robin McKie

27, Mar, 2005 @1:53 AM