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

A first edition of Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica could become the most expensive print sold of the revolutionary text when it goes under the hammer with a guide price of at least $1m (£790,000) this month.

The extremely rare continental copy being sold by auction house Christie’s in New York is one of a handful of texts thought to have been destined for Europe and has minor differences from those distributed in England by Newton and the book’s editor, Edmond Halley.

The list price of between $1m and $1.5m is thought to be a record for the book. An English version also bound in red morocco leather, which was said to have been presented to King James II, sold for more than $2.5m in 2013. Its list price was $600,000.

About 400 copies of Principia’s first edition were printed, of which the continental versions accounted for about 20%. Halley, the astronomer best known for the comet named after him, encouraged Newton to organise his theories into a text and paid for the printing because the Royal Society of which he and Newton were members had run out of funds.

The society retains two copies of the book, including the original manuscript on which the first print run in 1687 was based, which is described as its “greatest treasure”.

Written in Latin, the book’s full title is Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy). It laid out Newton’s groundbreaking theories in areas such as gravity and the forces of motion, and introduced a more rigorous mathematical method to physical science.

Keith Moore, the head of the Royal Society library, described it as a “benchmark in human thought”.

“It’s not just the history and development of science; it’s one of the greatest books ever published,” he said. “It was hugely influential in terms of applying mathematics to basic physical problems.”

Moore said the large sum set to be attracted by the book could be in part due to the growing influence of science within culture, as well as the huge earnings of some technology entrepreneurs.

“People who have big books these days maybe are the kinds of people who have made their money on the internet or the web ... If you have a few million quid to spend, why wouldn’t you buy a copy of Principia Mathematica?

“If you’ve made your money from a really cool algorithm, you will probably appreciate Newtonian physics.”

Despite its wide-ranging impact, and the book’s use as a foundational physics text being unsurpassed until Einstein’s general theory of relativity, Principia did not make a list last year of the top 20 most important academic books of all time. The list was topped by Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.

But because it was published almost two centuries earlier, first editions of Principia are rarer and likely to continue selling for far larger amounts. One of the highest prices paid for a first edition of Darwin’s book laying out the theory of evolution was £103,000 in 2009, and subsequent sales have been lower.

While the prices differ, the impact of the two texts was comparable, Moore said. “What Newton does in the 1680s is revolutionise the physical sciences. The fundamental laws of physics.

“Darwin’s great work published in 1859 revolutionised the biological sciences in the same way. They are similar books in the impact they had.”

  • The picture caption on this article was amended on 5 December 2016 to clarify that the copy of Principia Mathematica up for sale is not the one held by Cambridge University.


Jasper Jackson

The GuardianTramp

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