Now, anyone who wants to study the best original source of one of science’s key insights can do so. The Royal Society is making available online for the first time a 100-page manuscript by the physician William Stukeley, who wrote the Memoirs of Newton’s Life.
“After dinner, the weather being warm, we went into the garden and drank tea, under the shade of some apple trees,” wrote Stukeley, in the papers published in 1752 a hives, said: “Scholars know where the apple story comes from, and clearly it’s an anecdote Newton polished. What we want is for the public to see the manuscript it self. It wasn’t just Newton that polished it, succeeding generations put a gloss on it as well.”
The manuscript is one of seven documents to go online as part of the Royal Society’s 350th anniversary celebrations. Martin Rees, president of the Royal Society, said other treasures from the archives were also being published online.
Robert Iliffe, editorial director for the Newton Project, based at Sussex University, said that Stukeley had some of the best known insider knowledge of Newton’s foibles, such as the great man’s forgetfulness. “There’s a story in the book of Newton leading a horse up a hill just outside Grantham and he’s reading a book with his left hand at the same time,” he said. “When he gets to the top of the hill he finds out that, as he’s been reading the book, the horse has long bolted”
Other documents released by the Royal Society today include drawings of English wildflowers by Richard Waller, anatomical drawings based on early dissections of the human body and sketches of fossil trilobites made by Sir Henry James around 1843. “Waller’s drawings deserve to be better known — they’re a record of a scientist trying to grasp how botanical specimens should be shown,” said Moore. “Waller was tremendously interested in how to reproduce colour, which was very advanced for the period.”
There are also important historical documents. “Fellows of the Royal Society in the early days weren’t just scientists as we define them now, they were interested in all kinds of things. John Locke, who is well known these days as a philosopher, was a fellow and (in 1681) was involved in drafting a constitutional document for one of the American colonies, the Carolinas. We thought that we would reproduce that so that people in the US could see it,” said Moore.
The Royal Society holds more than 250,000 manuscripts and pieces of paper in its archives, and today’s publication is the start of an attempt to make all of that available one day. “This is just a baby step towards bringing our archives to a wider public,” said Moore.