How a Lavish 17th-Century Study of Fish Almost Prevented the Publication of Newton’s Principia, One of the Most Important Science Books Ever Written

The exalt­ed sta­tus of Isaac New­ton’s Philosophiæ Nat­u­ralis Prin­cip­ia Math­e­mat­i­ca is reflect­ed by the fact that every­body knows it as, sim­ply, the Prin­cip­ia. Very few of us, by con­trast, speak of the His­to­ria when we mean to refer to John Ray and Fran­cis Willugh­by’s De His­to­ria Pis­ci­um, which came out in 1686, the year before the Prin­cip­ia. Both books were pub­lished by the Roy­al Soci­ety, and as it hap­pens, the for­mi­da­ble cost of Willugh­by and Ray’s lav­ish work of ichthy­ol­o­gy near­ly kept New­ton’s ground­break­ing trea­tise on motion and grav­i­ta­tion from the print­ing press.

Accord­ing to the Roy­al Soci­ety’s web site, “Ray and Willughby’s His­to­ria did not prove to be the pub­lish­ing sen­sa­tion that the Fel­lows had hoped and the book near­ly bank­rupt­ed the Soci­ety. This meant that the Soci­ety was unable to meet its promise to sup­port the pub­li­ca­tion of Isaac New­ton’s mas­ter­piece.”

For­tu­nate­ly, “it was saved from obscu­ri­ty by Edmund Hal­ley, then Clerk at the Roy­al Soci­ety” — and now bet­ter known for his epony­mous comet — “who raised the funds to pub­lish the work, pro­vid­ing much of the mon­ey from his own pock­et. ”

Hal­ley’s great reward, in lieu of the salary the Roy­al Soci­ety could no longer pay, was a pile of unsold copies of De His­to­ria Pis­ci­um. That may not have been quite the insult it sounds like, giv­en that the book rep­re­sent­ed a tri­umph of pro­duc­tion and design in its day. You can see a copy in the episode of Adam Sav­age’s Test­ed at the top of the post, and you can close­ly exam­ine its imagery at your leisure in the dig­i­tal archive of the Roy­al Soci­ety. In the words of Jonathan Ash­more, Chair of the Roy­al Society’s Library Com­mit­tee, a brows­ing ses­sion should help us “appre­ci­ate why ear­ly Fel­lows of the Roy­al Soci­ety were so impressed by Willughby’s stun­ning illus­tra­tions of piscine nat­ur­al his­to­ry.”

Though Sav­age duly mar­vels at the Roy­al Soci­ety’s copy of the His­to­ria — a recon­struc­tion made up of pages long ago cut out and sold sep­a­rate­ly, as was once com­mon prac­tice with books with pic­tures  suit­able for fram­ing — it’s clear that much of the moti­va­tion for his vis­it came from the prospect of close prox­im­i­ty to New­to­ni­ana, up to and includ­ing the man’s death mask. But then, New­ton lays fair claim to being the most impor­tant sci­en­tist who ever lived, and the Prin­cip­ia to being the most impor­tant sci­ence book ever writ­ten. Almost three and a half cen­turies lat­er, physics still holds mys­ter­ies for gen­er­a­tions of New­ton’s suc­ces­sors to solve. But then, so do the depths of the ocean.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Sir Isaac Newton’s Papers & Anno­tat­ed Prin­cip­ia Go Dig­i­tal

Beau­ti­ful & Out­landish Col­or Illus­tra­tions Let Euro­peans See Exot­ic Fish for the First Time (1754)

The Bril­liant Col­ors of the Great Bar­ri­er Revealed in a His­toric Illus­trat­ed Book from 1893

How Isaac New­ton Lost $3 Mil­lion Dol­lars in the “South Sea Bub­ble” of 1720: Even Genius­es Can’t Pre­vail Against the Machi­na­tions of the Mar­kets

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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