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Grant Proposal

The "Chymistry" of Isaac Newton: Project Description
The State of Scholarship on Newton's Alchemy: Problems and Solutions

Thanks to the researches of B.J.T. Dobbs, Richard Westfall, and Karin Figala, it is now well-known that Isaac Newton wrote at least one hundred thirty one manuscripts, totaling approximately one million words, on the subject of alchemy.1 Despite the fact that much of this material has been available to scholars since its sale by Sotheby and Company in 1936, the goals and protocols of Newton's alchemical endeavor as a whole remain poorly understood, and the mass of manuscripts lies unedited, unannotated, and largely undated.2 This is surprising, given the intense scholarly activity that has focused over the years on Newton's mathematical, natural philosophical, and optical papers. And yet, despite their relative obscurity, Newton's alchemical manuscripts have formed the basis of strong revisionist statements about the nature of his scientific endeavor as a whole. Already in 1946, John Maynard Keynes used the alchemical papers to make his famous claim that "Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians."3 Dobbs, on the other hand, espoused the view in her 1975 Foundations of Newton's Alchemy that Newton's theory of gravitational attraction was inspired by his alchemical research. Forced by her subsequent research to moderate this claim, Dobbs arrived in her 1991 Janus Faces of Genius at the position that Newton's alchemy was above all an expression of his religiosity.4 Westfall too shared this view, and was inclined - along with the early Dobbs - to see alchemy as the source for Newton's concept of attractive forces and active principles operating within matter.5

The interpretations of Newton's alchemy proffered by Dobbs and Westfall, although considered radical when they first appeared in the mid-1970's, have received no serious challenge. To the contrary, they have become grist for such popular-science writers as Michael White, whose 1997 Isaac Newton: The Last Sorcerer builds a sensationalist picture of Newton the alchemist on material taken mostly from Dobbs' early work. Why is it that so little serious scholarly effort has been directed toward the understanding of Newton's alchemy given the manifest interest that this topic holds for the educated public and historians alike? A major reason lies in the myriad difficulties that anyone who wishes to deal with Newton's alchemical Nachlass must face. The manuscripts, mostly located in Cambridge, Jerusalem, and Massachusetts, are in a state of considerable disorder. The most telling index of this disarray, perhaps, may be found in the repeated failure of previous Newton scholars to determine which of the manuscripts were actually composed by Newton as opposed to being transcripts of authors that he copied for his own use.6 Dobbs and Westfall, moreover, supply no text-by-text analysis of Newton's alchemical sources, which would have been a reasonable first step in determining which texts he actually wrote as opposed to merely copying or abridging into compendia. Although both authors provided important insights about Newton's favorite alchemists, such as Eirenaeus Philalethes (George Starkey), Michael Maier, and Jan de Monte Snyder, they did not attempt to identify all the sources in any given text, and expended even less effort in tracing Newton's use of sources over his successive manuscripts. Neither Dobbs nor Westfall made a systematic attempt to date the various components of the alchemical collection in its entirety, with the result that we have little sense, at present, of the chronological development of Newton's ideas in the realm of alchemy/chemistry. Instead, the method of Dobbs and Westfall was to work with "core-samples" taken from what they supposed to be different periods of Newton's endeavor. This technique was understandable, given the daunting character of the material, and yet even a sympathetic critic must agree that it could only lead to conclusions that were impressionistic at best.

It is therefore clear that a new study of Newton's alchemy, accompanied by a complete and scholarly online edition of his alchemical manuscripts, is a desideratum. Fortunately, since the publication of Dobbs' Janus Faces in 1991, three factors have made the understanding and editing of Newton's alchemical papers a much more favorable prospect than before. First, the alchemical milieu in which Newton worked is now much better known than it was in the 1970's and 1980's. We now have a comprehensive study of the life and work of the New England migr George Starkey (alias Eirenaeus Philalethes), who was identified by Dobbs and Westfall as Newton's favorite alchemist. Additionally, the alchemy of Newton's contemporary and scientific correspondent, Robert Boyle, has received a detailed study, as is also the case with Starkey's tutelage of Boyle in the discipline of "chymistry."7 Like Newton, Boyle was deeply involved in a research program initiated by Philalethes-Starkey, and the two British savants exchanged "secrets" derived from the American alchemist.8 The ongoing research on Starkey, Boyle, and their alchemical papers will make it much easier than before to place Newton's alchemical interests in context, to identify his sources, and, crucially, to determine which manuscripts are original compositions by Newton as opposed to unadulterated transcripts, partial transcripts with bracketed commentary, or even mosaic-like pastiches of snippets cobbled together from a variety of authors. As shown by Newman in 1987, the distinguishing of Newton's transcripts from his own compositions is a problem of the first magnitude that is best solved by having an intimate knowledge of the literature of alchemy as it existed in the seventeenth century. An acquaintance with the unpublished manuscripts of Starkey allowed Newman to show then that Dobbs had incorrectly claimed that Newton authored a foundational work entitled Clavis, which was actually part of a letter written by Starkey to Boyle in 1651.9 In the electronic edition that we propose, we will include all of Newton's chymical writings in word-searchable form with annotations indicating their sources and the degree of Newtonian input into them.

Second, our picture of early modern alchemy as a whole has undergone considerable change since the work of Dobbs and Westfall. As Lawrence Principe and William Newman have argued in several co-authored publications, it is anachronistic to distinguish "alchemy" from "chemistry" in the seventeenth century.10 The attempt to transmute metals, often called chrysopoeia (Greek for "gold-making") in the early modern period, was a normal pursuit carried out by most of those who were engaged in the varied realm of iatrochemistry, scientific metallurgy, and chemical technology. The fact that Newton, Boyle, Locke, and other celebrated natural philosophers were engaged in chrysopoeia is no aberration by seventeenth-century standards. Hence Newman and Principe have adopted the inclusive term "chymistry," an actor's category employed during the seventeenth century, to describe this overarching discipline. But how does this affect our picture of Newton's alchemy, and how is it likely to influence the direction of future research? Dobbs and Westfall erected a strong dichotomy between early modern "alchemy" and "chemistry." Drawing on a romantic picture of alchemy depicted by the analytical psychologist Carl Jung and his supporter Mircea Eliade, the two American historians presented "alchemy" as a vitalistic, secretive discipline permeated with mystical religiosity, and "chemistry" as a public endeavor concerned with such mundane pursuits as distillation, the refining of metals, and the purification of salts.11 This bifurcation served as a selection criterion for Dobbs and Westfall, leading them to exclude much of Newton's chymistry from their analysis of his "alchemy" (his chrysopoetic pursuits). As a result, they produced a picture of Newton's "alchemy" that was a priori skewed in the direction of vitalism, secrecy, and personal salvation. The proposed study and edition of Newton's chymical work will not employ the anachronistic alchemy-chemistry distinction, and so we will not be guided by a faulty selection criterion. By including all of Newton's work in chemical technology and metallurgy alongside his chrysopoeia, the study and edition of Newton's chymical manuscripts will provide a far more balanced picture of his interests.

A third factor contributing to a successful outcome for the project will lie in the laboratory. During the last year, Newman, with the aid of Cathrine Reck of the Indiana University Chemistry Department and Laura Alexander, a laboratory assistant, has replicated a number of Newton's chymical processes and apparatus. The results of our work were filmed by BBC and NOVA, who are jointly working on a Newton documentary. We have been able to recreate some of the metallic "trees" (dendrites) that formed the probable inspiration for Newton's manuscript "Of Nature's Obvious Laws and Processes in Vegetation" (metallic silicates, as well as silver crystals grown under a solution of silver nitrate and mercury nitrate), the star-regulus of antimony (a crystalline form of metallic antimony), and "the net," a purple alloy of copper and antimony covered with an interesting reticular surface. We are continuing these experiments as we progress more deeply into Newton's laboratory notebooks (Cambridge University Additional MSS. 3973 and 3975), although our internal funding from IU will expire at the end of the present semester. Hence we are applying to the NSF for funds to pay a laboratory assistant as the project progresses (a graduate student in Chemistry will suffice), and to recoup the material costs involved in laboratory replication. With the aid of the Fine Arts Studio at IU, we have also made a working replica of one of Newton's metallurgical furnaces (illustrated and described in a manuscript kept in the Joseph Halle Schaffner Collection in the University of Chicago Library). Such replications, largely eschewed by previous Newton-scholars, have the advantage of teaching us about the actual successes and failures that Newton experienced in the laboratory. Although we can make educated guesses about his chymical work from reading alone, there are often too many variables in chemical research to make it possible to predict an exact outcome from Newton's notes without recreating the apparatus and conditions under which he performed his experiments. For example, modern electrical furnaces do not produce the complex mix of gases that can result in reducing atmospheres in the case of charcoal-burning metallurgical furnaces (where open crucibles are exposed to the atmosphere within the furnace). The problem of predicting experimental outcomes is compounded by Newton's use of non-standard symbols and "cover-names" for substances. Our goal, therefore, is to determine exactly what processes Newton was carrying out, and why he was performing the particular laboratory operations that he used. This can best be arrived at by means of an integrated program involving reading, editing, and replicating Newton's chymical oeuvre.

It is important to stress the emphatic need for such an integrated project combining new research on Newton's chymistry with an online edition of his manuscripts. In a word, one cannot fully succeed without the other. For example, an online, word-searchable edition of Newton's chymical Nachlass would make it possible to date the relative composition of the various manuscripts much more reliably than Dobbs or Westfall did, since it would allow one a fairly easy way of determining the distribution of sources in Newton's unpublished notes and transcripts. It would then become feasible to determine the earliest occurrence of a given source in an informed and reliable manner (the process would of course be checked against results obtained from examining the watermarks on the manuscripts and Newton's handwriting).12 This sort of Quellenforschung or source-criticism is one of the oldest tools of philology, but perhaps because of the daunting size and disorder of Newton's chymical manuscripts, no scholar has yet applied the technique to them.13 An electronic edition would greatly facilitate this process as a result of word-searchability and the possibilities of internal cross-referencing. Once the order of composition of the manuscripts was determined, one could then trace out the development of Newton's chymical ideas over the thirty years or so that he was an active experimenter in the field. Newman's proposed monograph on Newton's chymistry would then present this result and use it as a means of describing the evolution of Newton's chymical thought and practice over time.

  1. We use the term "alchemy" here to include all of Newton's interests that would today fall under the general rubric of "chemistry." We do not mean to demarcate "alchemy" from "early chemistry," as many historians have done. We will consider the problems of anachronism that this bifurcation entails later in the proposal. For the scholars referred to, see B.J.T. Dobbs, The Foundations of Newton's Alchemy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), Richard Westfall, Never at Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), and Karin Figala, "Die exakte Alchemie von Isaac Newton," Verhandlungen der Naturforschenden Gesellschaft in Basel 94(1984), pp. 157-227.
  2. According to the provisional catalogue compiled by Rob Iliffe, Peter Spargo, and John T. Young. (based largely on the original Sotheby's sale-catalogue of 1936), eighteen of these manuscripts are unaccounted for today, and several others may be in the hands of private collectors. See
  3. John Maynard Keynes, "Newton the Man," as quoted in Dobbs, Foundations of Newton's Alchemy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), p. 13.
  4. See William R. Newman's review of Dobbs, Janus Faces of Genius in Isis 84(1993), pp. 578-579.
  5. Westfall, Never at Rest, pp. 299-308, 527-529.
  6. See William R. Newman, "Newton's Clavis as Starkey's Key," Isis 78(1987), pp. 564-574. Dobbs also claimed that Newton had written a text entitled Sendivogius Explained, which was actually composed neither by Newton nor by Starkey, but by an anonymous follower of Starkey's.
  7. William R. Newman, Gehennical Fire: The Lives of George Starkey, An American Alchemist in the Scientific Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003; first edition, 1994). Lawrence M. Principe, The Aspiring Adept: Robert Boyle and His Alchemical Quest (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998). Newman and Principe, Alchemy Tried in the Fire: Starkey, Boyle, and the Fate of Helmontian Chymistry (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002).
  8. Principe, Aspiring Adept, pp. 174-179.
  9. Newman, "Newton's Clavis as Starkey's Key," Isis 78(1987), pp. 564-574.
  10. Newman and Principe, "Alchemy vs. Chemistry: The Etymological Origins of a Historiographic Mistake," Early Science and Medicine 3(1998), pp. 32-65. Principe and Newman, "Some Problems with the Historiography of Alchemy," in William R. Newman and Anthony Grafton, Secrets of Nature: Astrology and Alchemy in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001), pp. 385-431.
  11. Dobbs, Foundations of Newton's Alchemy, pp. 25-35 for Jungianism, pp. 80-81, 121-125, 136, et passim for examples of the alchemy-chemistry bifurcation on Dobbs' work. See also Westfall, Never at Rest, pp. 281-286, 298-309.
  12. For the use of watermarks to date Newton's manuscripts, see Alan E. Shapiro, "Beyond the Dating Game: Watermark Clusters and the Composition of Newton's Opticks," in P. M. Harman and Alan E. Shapiro, The Investigation of Difficult Things (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), pp. 181-227.
  13. An admirable first attempt has been made by Karin Figala, John Harrison, and Ulrich Petzoldt to determine rough dates of acquisition for Newton's alchemical books, but this does not address the first appearance of authors in his manuscripts. See Figala, Harrison, and Petzoldt, "De scriptoribus chemicis: Sources for the Establishment of Isaac Newton's (Al)chemical Library, in Harman and Shapiro, The Investigation of Difficult Things (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), pp. 135-179.

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