Pictures of fish that almost sunk Newton and gravity go online
April 19 2012 Lewis Smith
Turbot pictured in historia piscium
Images of fish from a book that almost scuppered publication of Isaac Newton’s masterpiece on gravity and motion have been put online by the Royal Society.
The world’s first published book devoted to fish, the 1686 Historia Piscium - “A History of Fishes” - by John Ray and Francis Willughby, was expected by the Royal Society to be a sensation but, instead, it flopped.
The failure of the book to capture the public imagination in the seventeenth century,nearly bankrupting the Royal Society, almost prevented the publication of Isaac Newton’s masterpiece Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica – ‘Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy’.
Newton had been promised the Royal Society would publish his book but the losses incurred by Historia Piscium meant the institution could no longer afford to do so.
Instead, Edmund Halley, then making a name for himself in astronomy, raised the money and enabled Principia, published in the Royal Society’s name, and Newton to change the way the world was viewed.
Pictures from the disastrous fish book have now been placed in an online as part of an initiative by the Royal Society to open its archive to the public for the first time.
Among the images from the book are drawings of a turbot, an eel, a carp, a hammerhead shark and, from the frontispiece, a flying fish.
Professor Jonathan Ashmore FRS, Chair of the Royal Society’s Library Committee, said: “While it may seem surprising to some people that the early Fellows of the Royal Society nearly passed up the opportunity to publish Newton’s Principia, we mustn’t forget that Halley, Newton, Ray and Willughby were all working in the very earliest days of the scientific revolution.
“Although the Principia may have gone on to achieve lasting fame and glory, we hope that visitors to our new online picture resource will be able to appreciate why early Fellows of the Royal Society were so impressed by Willughby’s stunning illustrations of piscine natural history.”
The site contains more than 1,000 images, including 13 from Historia Piscium, and more will be added.
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