Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia and the Royal Society

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The publication of Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica is widely considered an extraordinary event in the history of science. In the Principia, Newton introduced a system of mechanical explanation of the world that revolutionized physics. Of particular importance in the Principia was Newton’s mathematical demonstration of the existence of the force of gravity, which he demonstrated to be at work in a wide range of phenomena. But as revolutionary as Newton’s discovery and demonstration was, the Principia also represented a revolution in the goals of science. Newton’s Principia helped to shift the course of science from an effort to “find first causes” into an attempt to “establish a set of principles … to predict and to retrodict the phenomena of the physical world.”

While the publishing of the Principia Mathematica can be seen as a single revolutionary moment in the history of science, it is also important to recognize the historical context that provided for its publication. During the seventeenth century, scientific inquiry was changing in a way that created space for a genius like Newton to make and publish his discoveries. Central to these changes was the emergence of a “scientific community,” a group of individuals bonded by the common goal of finding new scientific knowledge. Newton was an active participant in the emerging scientific community, as a member and eventual president of the Royal Society for the Promotion of Natural Knowledge. In this paper, I will investigate the role that the Royal Society for the Promotion of Natural Knowledge played in the production, publication, and circulation of Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica, his most important work. I will argue that the Royal Society fostered its...

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