The Macclesfield and Portsmouth collections of Newton manuscripts
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Isaac Newton (1642-1727), the greatest natural philosopher of his age and perhaps any age, came up to the University of Cambridge in 1661, graduating in 1665. In 1669 he succeeded Isaac Barrow in the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics. In 1699 Newton was appointed Master of the Mint, resigning the Lucasian Chair and his Trinity College Fellowship in 1701. He was elected President of the Royal Society in 1703, which post he occupied until his death.
After his death, Newton's manuscripts passed to his niece Catherine and her husband John Conduitt. That the papers were not sold at the time owes much to the Conduitts, who appreciated their inestimable scholastic value. In 1740 the Conduitt's daughter, also Catherine, married John Wallop, who became Viscount Lymington when his father was created first Earl of Portsmouth. Their son became the second earl, the manuscripts thus being inherited by succeeding generations of the Portsmouth family.
It was the fifth earl who, in 1872, passed all the Newton manuscripts he possessed to the University of Cambridge, where a catalogue of the collection was made by a syndicate comprising the University scientists George Gabriel Stokes, John Couch Adams, Henry Richards Luard and George Downing Liveing. The catalogue having been prepared, the earl generously presented all the mathematical and scientific manuscripts to the University, and it is these that form the 'Portsmouth collection' in the University Library (MSS Add. 3958-4007).
The remainder of the papers, many concerned with alchemy, theology and chronology, were returned to Lord Portsmouth as being of little scientific interest. These manuscripts were sold at auction at Sotheby's in London in 1936.
Broadly, Newton's mathematical papers were assigned UL classmarks Add. 3958-3964, 3968; manuscripts relating to the Principia Add. 3965, 3967; astronomy and optics Add. 3969-3972; chemistry Add. 3973-3975; with correspondence at Add. 3976-3986. Other manuscripts were assigned classmarks Add. 3987-4006, although some annotated printed works in this run have since been transferred to the Adversaria Class in the Rare Books Department. Copies of further letters are at Add. 4007.
Under the regulations for the Lucasian Chair, Newton deposited copies of his lectures in the University Library in the seventeenth century. These, and some correspondence relating to the University, were assigned the classmarks Dd.4.18, Dd.9.46, Dd.9.67, Dd.9.68, and Mm.6.50.
In 2000 the University Library acquired a very important collection of scientific manuscripts from the Earl of Macclesfield, a collection which includes a substantial number of Isaac Newton’s papers and many other significant mathematical and scientific papers of the 18th century. These have been catalogued and digitised, and underwent intensive conservation treatment. Access to the originals is very limited, but we are happy to present the digitised versions here.
The University Library Manuscript Department's website can be found here.