Don't judge this book by its cover. Between those old calf boards are pages with lovely wide margins, head-pieces, tail-pieces, and folding plates. It is a gorgeous example of 18th-century book craft.
It also holds the keys to the universe.
This is a first edition of Henry Pemberton's A View of Sir Isaac Newton's Philosophy. Published in 1728, it was meant as an Everyman's version of the Principia. Pemberton had given Newton fodder for his rift with Leibnitz regarding the calculus, and Newton, recognizing an ally, offered his friendship. Pemberton, the editor of the third edition of the Principia, was a member of the Royal Society, as was Newton, who served 25 years as its president.
The Principia has its own fascinating publishing history. Samuel Pepys, who was everywhere and did everything in London at the time, gave consent for the book to be published on behalf of the Royal Society, but the Society had already blown its publishing budget on a book titled The History of Fish. Astronomer Edmund Halley stepped in and funded the Principia.
Pemberton's View contains "A Poem on Sir Isaac Newton" by R. Glover, which runs for 15 pages. High-school students today might find a poem in honor of the creator (or one of the creators) of calculus a strange thing indeed. Glover has been dead for a long time, so it's probably okay to observe here that it's doubtful that many who bought this book ever read his poem all the way through. Those long S's don't do bad poetry any favors, either. To our modern eye the first two lines read:
To Newton's genius, and immortal fame
Th' advent'rous mufe with trembling pinion foars.
Including R. Glover's tributary poem might have been a mistake on Pemberton's part (Glover was 16 years old when he wrote it, and the DNB notes that "Pemberton's book was...regarded as disappointing"), but all other details around the publication were attended to in high style. For example, the folding plates were printed on paper that left a white space when the plate was expanded full length. This allows the reader to view the diagram to the left while following the text to the right.
The head- and tail-pieces are beautifully engraved and, as the names suggest, are found at the beginning and end of the chapters.
Reading physics isn't my idea of a good time, but I was immediately drawn into the final part of this book — the list of subscribers. This is a list of many of the people who promised to buy, or put in orders for, copies of A View of Sir Isaac Newton's Philosophy. It is a fascinating look at a section of a highly literate population composed of doctors, theologians, apothecaries, gentlemen, and nobles to whom the discoveries of the Principia heralded a new way of viewing the natural world.
Of the over 2,300 names listed, 36 are women. Perhaps there is nothing unusual in the Countess of Pembroke and Lady Paisley subscribing to a scientific publication, but what of the other women, those listed simply as "Mrs. Sarah Brown" and "Mrs. Campbell of Stackpole Court"? Did they read and discuss Newton's philosophies with their husbands, or with other women? I would love to know.
Newton has been resurrected, sort of, in fiction, in Neal Stephenson's The System of the World and in Dark Matter: The Private Life of Sir Isaac Newton by Phillip Kerr. Both books focus on Newton's position as Master of the Mint and his fascination with alchemy. Too bad no one has paired him with the fictional characters Stephen Maturin and Jack Aubrey from Patrick O'Brian's nautical series. They were members of the Royal Society, as was Henry Higgins, the professor of phonetics in George Bernard Shaw's play.
Imagine being stuck in an elevator with that group.
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One final note: Thank you, Linda Hall, for digitizing so much of your rare book library.
To view Newton's copy of Canon Chronicus, with the pages folded back to mark passages that were of interest to him (the highlighting pen wasn't yet invented), check out their digital classics page.