Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Take 2--Pawn Stars, Rare Books, Sir Isaac Newton, History of Science, Geology, Agricola

My copy of John Harrison's, The Library Of Isaac Newton , arrived yesterday after being freshly printed in Tennessee on February 3, 2011 (in this case a good example of the value of print on demand!).  With the insight provided by Harrison's study of Newton's Library I would like to add a little more information to my post of February 1, Pawn Stars, Rare Books, Sir Isaac Newton, History of Science, Geology, Agricola

I still agree that the copy of Agricola's 1546 book, De Ortu et Causis Subterraneorum, purchased by the Pawn Stars, is from Newton's personal library but I am now much less confident that the annotations in the manuscript were made by Newton. 

The shelf marking on the inside cover do confirm that this copy was part of the Musgrave Catalog published in 1767 (the work was not listed in the quickly assembled Huggins List from 1727 created shortly after Newton's death).  I also feel confident that the specialist who looked at the handwriting was simply wrong in stating that Newton did not write in tiny script, as the example below shows he certainly did!

Newton's Notes in Howard, Copernicus of all sorts, convicted....1705 (no. 810)
From page 17, Harrison, The Library of Isaac Newton, Cambridge University Press, 2008

Script size aside, from what I have learned from Harrison, I seriously doubt the annotations were in Newton's hand.  My guess is that a previous owner annotated the manuscript prior to Newton's acquisition of it.  Newton owned only three books on mineralogy, all by Argicola.  The other two books, one held by the University of Wisconsin and one by Trinity College, Cambridge, do not have any annotations. Newton's copy of De re Metallica, 1621 is noted as showing "some signs of dog earring."  De re Metallica was Agricola's masterpiece and that makes me doubt Newton would be motivated to carefully study the earlier, 1546 publication.  Harrison also notes that of the 1,763 books he catalogued only 84 were verified to be annotated by Newton.  This leads me to conclude that the annotations in the 1546 manuscript are not in Newton's hand.

Before the appearance on Pawn Stars, that last known mention of this rare book was a listing in the Thame Park Auction of 1920, buyer unknown.  The catalog markings need to be studied more carefully as they do tell a story about the history of the book once it left the Newton estate.  Perhaps the Pawn Stars could post a photocopy of the front matter along with copies of the annotated pages! 

I do hope that De Ortu et Causis Subterraneorum will be acquired by Trinity College, for a fair price, and be added to the largest single collection of books from Newton's library. 


  1. I'm so glad other people picked up on this. For some reason, when I saw the Pawn Stars episode, I had a gut reaction that the handwriting "expert" was wrong. Not sure why, as I have read little on Newton (I did read a book on the marginalia in astrologer/spy/occultist John Dee's books (he had the largest personal library in England in his day, I think), and perhaps I was misremembering something from that.

    Two days after I saw a rerun of the Newton Pawn Stars episode, I was on a trip, and went into a scary used bookstore that was stacked floor to ceiling in tiny rows - must have been hundreds of thousands of musty tomes in there - possibly some bodies of people who got stuck going down certain aisles and couldn't get out ever again. I happened to notice a book on Newton _Isaac Newton: The Last Sorcerer_ mainly about his alchemical research, but basically a biography - by Michael White.

    I was flipping through it, thinking about the book in the Vegas pawn store with the tiny handwriting in it that the "expert" said was too small for Newton. I came upon this footnote about his writing:

    "A word about dating Newton's manuscripts: Newton very rarely dated any of his alchemical work, and the best indicator for the date of a manuscript is the style and size of his handwriting. The scholar B. J. Dobbs has divided Newton's handwriting into six periods. 1. 'Very early', 1667-69: the handwriting here is almost microscopic, perpendicular and meticulous. 2. 'Middle early', 1670-75: the writing is fuller and more rounded. 3. 'Late early', 1675-80: bolder and more rounded still. 4. 'Bad ink', 1680-81: a period during which Newton used poor-quality ink which has rendered his writing now almost illegible. 5. 'Middle confident,' 1682-92: far larger, sloping and more confident.6. 'Late', 1693-1727: small again, but different in nature to the 'Very early' period." (p 140)

    The description of the Very Early period jumped up at me, it seems to match what little I saw on the Pawn Stars show (I think they even described it as microscopic and meticulous, but I could be wrong). The White book states that Newton's first practical alchemy involved metals, and that he took meticulous notes on the subject. FWIW, anyway.

  2. Thanks for the insight into Newton's script. I'll have to find a copy of White's book for my library.

    I still don't think it was in Newton's hand but that opinon is not based on the script itself, but simply based on the age of the manuscript and the fact that the Agricola masterpiece was part of Newton's collection and most likely the book is seriously studied.