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Why Couldn’t the UK Royal Society Publish Isaac Newton’s Book?

The origins of the Royal Society date back to the 1660s when natural philosophers and physicians functioned in an invisible college learning and sharing knowledge. In more modern times, the society was also responsible for publishing the work of significant scientists. But did you know they were not able to publish Isaac Newton’s book? 

While impressed by his book “Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica,” the UK’s Royal Society was unable to publish Isaac Newton’s book because it was nearly bankrupt from printing the “History of Fish.” Fortunately, the printing was supported by scientist Edmond Halley, who made it happen that helped the history of science.

How Did the Royal Society Came Distressingly Close to Bankruptcy?

The disaster began in the 17th century, when the country’s most prestigious scientific organization invested in John Ray and Francis Willughby’s richly illustrated Historia Piscium, or History of Fishes.

Despite being remarkable in 1686, the book flopped and nearly bankrupted the Royal Society, causing it to back out of its promise to fund the printing of Newton’s Principia, one of the most essential works in the history of science.

Today, digitized photographs from Historia Piscium, featuring a magnificent illustration of a flying fish, are made available with over a thousand others in the Royal Society’s new online picture repository.

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 1882 doodle of Thomas Huxley, and James Cook and the sailors aboard the Endeavour expedition’s first sighting of a kangaroo, or perhaps a wallaby, in 1770. “It was of a light mouse color, and in size and shape very much resembling a greyhound,” the notes accompanying the latter photograph indicate.

Ink drawings of snowflakes, furrows in ice flakes, and designs produced on the surface of frozen urine are among Hooke’s artworks.

Staff will continue to add to the archive, resulting in an ever-growing collection of photos available online. (Source: The Guardian)

How Did the Publication of Newton’s Principia Come to Reality and Who Made It Happen?

Though Ray and Willughby’s masterpiece delayed the publication of Newton’s Principia, Edmund Halley, then Clerk at the Royal Society, raised the finances to publish the work, paying for part of it out of his own pocket. In 1687, the Principia was finally published.

The Royal Society informed Halley that it could no longer afford his salary after publishing the work and offered to compensate him in unsold copies of the Historia Piscium instead. Which he gladly accepts.

While it may surprise some that the Royal Society’s early fellows almost passed up the chance to publish Newton’s Principia, we must remember that Halley, Newton, Ray, and Willughby were all working in the very early days of the scientific revolution.

Jonathan Ashmore, Chair of the Library Committee, The Royal Society

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. (Source: The Guardian)

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