Catalogue Entry: ALCH00081

Two incomplete treatises on the vegetative growth of metals and minerals

Author: Isaac Newton

Source: NMAHRB Ms. 1031 B, Dibner Library, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C., USA

[Normalized Text (at Chymistry of Isaac Newton)]

Custodial History

Bought at the Sotheby sale by Pickering & Chatto for £12. They advised Keynes on 23 July 1936 that they had already sold it, but to whom is unclear. Bought by Bern Dibner in London at some point in the 1940s: B.J.T Dobbs noted that 'when I pressed him for details about that transaction, he assured me that it seemed more important at the time to save it from the blitz than to keep records of that sort of thing' (Janus Faces, 256, n. 1). Previously Burndy Ms. 16. Donated to the Smithsonian in 1976.

Sotheby Lot

SL113

Contents

The first treatise (11 pp., in English) begins with a list of 12 numbered subjects for discussion, forming a putative draft outline of the work (though the text itself frequently departs from the sequence of subjects listed): e.g. '1 Of natures obvious laws & processes in vegetation', '2 That metalls vegetate after the same laws', etc. The very heavy reworking of the main text and absence of reference to other sources strongly suggest Newton's own composition, making this a centrally important document indicating the nature of his 'chymical' views in the mid-1670s. It is quite without accounts of specific laboratory processes and quite devoid of allegorical or symbolic terminology, and seems to represent the beginnings of an attempt to formulate a coherent and comprehensive theory of chemistry.

The second, shorter treatise is in Latin and written from the back of the document, beginning on f. 6v and continuing onto f. 6r. This is a distinct but closely related work also shedding important light on Newton's chymical and natural philosophical views, though until recently it has been almost wholly neglected by Newton scholars.

Both texts are related to the 'Hypothesis explaining the Properties of Light' Newton sent to the Royal Society in December 1675.

Reproduced in facsimile as an appendix to B.J.T. Dobbs, Alchemical Death. The English portion is described and transcribed in Dobbs, Janus Faces, 256-70 (Dobbs treats the first of the twelve subjects for enquiry as the title of the entire document). See also her 'Newton Manuscripts at the Smithsonian', 107, and P.M. Rattansi, 'Newton's Alchemical Studies'.

© 2017 The Newton Project

Professor Rob Iliffe
Director, AHRC Newton Papers Project

Scott Mandelbrote,
Fellow & Perne librarian, Peterhouse, Cambridge

Faculty of History, George Street, Oxford, OX1 2RL - newtonproject@history.ox.ac.uk

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