Newton's Opticks

A first edition from 1704

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Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) was a farmer’s son who was educated at the Free Grammar School in Grantham before he entered Trinity College Cambridge in 1661. His early school reports suggest that he was ‘idle’ and ‘inattentive’, but his attitude to learning obviously changed because a list of sins made when he was 19 included…‘setting my heart on money, learning, and pleasure more than Thee’. Interestingly the same list of sins also included threatening to burn his mother and stepfather in their house. Newton’s initial studies at Cambridge were geared towards a law degree and he did not become involved in mathematics until some three years later. He received his MA in 1668 and from 1669-1701/2 was the second ever Lucasian Professor of Mathematics.

Newton's early work as Lucasian Professor built upon the optical experiments he had conducted in the years preceding the appointment and this same subject was the topic of his first lecture course begun in January 1670. In 1672, after donating a reflecting telescope to the Royal Society, he was elected a Fellow of that Society and in the same year he published his first scientific paper on light and colour in the Society's Philosophical Transactions. Though this was generally well received, both Hooke and Huygens were very critical of Newton’s attempt to prove by experiment that light consisted of the motion of small particles rather than waves. His corpuscular theory of light was nevertheless widely accepted until the 19th century.

Newton's greatest achievement is held to be his work in physics and celestial mechanics culminating in his theory  of universal gravitation. In 1696 he settled in London as Warden of the Royal Mint and in 1703 was elected as President of the Royal Society. He held both of these posts until his death. Knighted in 1705 he was the first scientist to be so honoured. Many readers will also have fond memories of his depiction on the old one pound note.

Historical Collection 1 includes the following editions of Newton’s many works:

NEWTON, Isaac
Lectiones opticae
Guil. Innys, London, 1729. 291p. ill.

The substance of lectures delivered at Cambridge on the principles and measurement of refraction, the origin and phenomena of colour and the colour of light. The whole is worked out with experiments and theorems.

NEWTON, Isaac
The mathematical principles of natural philosophy to which is added Newton’s system of the world; a short comment on and defence of the Principia by William Emerson, with the laws of the moon’s motion according to gravity. 3rd Edition of Motte’s English translation. Vol 1.
Sherwood, Neely & Jones, 1819 211p. ill.

NEWTON, Isaac
The mathematical principles of natural philosophy to which is added Newton’s system of the world; a short comment on and defence of the Principia by William Emerson, with the laws of the moon’s motion according to gravity. 3rd Edition of Motte’s English translation. Vol 2.
Sherwood, Neely & Jones, 1819 321p. ill.

NEWTON, Isaac
The mathematical principles of natural philosophy to which is added Newton’s system of the world; a short comment on and defence of the Principia by William Emerson, with the laws of the moon’s motion according to gravity. 3rd Edition of Motte’s English translation. Vol 3.
Sherwood, Neely & Jones, 1819 231p, ill.

Third edition of the first and only English translation of the Principia until more than a century later. This edition is revised by the London bookseller and Mathematician William Davies.

NEWTON, Isaac
Optical lectures read in the publick schools of the University of Cambridge AD 1669. Never before printed. Translated into English out of the original Latin.
Francis Fayram, 1728

Essays on the 'Different refrangibility of rays', 'The measuring of refractions', 'The refraction of planes' and 'The refraction of curved surfaces'.

NEWTON, Isaac
Optice, sive de reflexionibus, refractionibus, inflexionibus et coloribus lucis. Translated by S. Clarke.
William & John Innys, London 1719. 415p. ill.

Newton, Isaac
Optices libri tres
Accedunt ejusdem lectiones opticae et opuscula omnia ad lucem colorespertinentia.

Joannem Manfre, Patavvi, 1749. 166p. ill.  

Image of Newton book
NEWTON, Isaac
Opticks or a treatise of the reflections, refractions, inflections and colours of light.  
William and John Innys. London 1704. 281p. ill. 1st edition.

These experiments in light and colour caused considerable controversy among Newton’s contemporaries. The work was completed in 1676 but publication was deferred until after the death of Hooke – one of Newton’s severest critics. Newton believed in the corpuscular theory which supposed that light is composed of streams of imponderable particles emitted in straight lines from a luminous source. However since all known facts about light were not covered by this theory Newton combined it with the wave theory – anticipating modern beliefs.

NEWTON, Isaac
Opticks or a treatise of the reflections, refractions, inflections and colours of light. 2nd edition.
William and John Innys. London 1718. 382p. ill.

You can learn more about Sir Isaac Newton on this website:

Newton and the Colour of Light discusses his famous prism experiment of 1666, his reflecting telescope of 1668 and makes some observations on the great man's own eyesight.

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