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Whipple Library

Department of History and Philosophy of Science

Newton for all

Newton was a heroic figure in his own lifetime, and the personality cult that grew up around him intensified after his death. This enormous popular interest can be seen in the publication of cheap and easy to read (and understand) accounts of his life and works. With the cheapest being only a few pennies, his works were accessible to a wide audience.

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Life of Sir Isaac Newton with an account of his Writings, Without the Imposition of the French being annexed to it (London: J. Roberts, 1728), 6d STORE 71:12

This pamphlet was published one year after Newton's death and gives a short account of his life and works. It is based on a much criticised work by Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle, perpetual secretary of the French Académie des Sciences, yet has been corrected and translated, hence 'Without the Imposition of the French'. The ephemeral nature of these pamphlets, mass produced and sold cheaply, means few copies have survived. This pamphlet sold for 6d, the equivalent cost of a shave at the barbers in mid-eighteenth-century London, making it accessible to a popular audience who may have seen Newton's State Funeral the year before. This accessibility is indicated not only by price but also by point of sale: the Oxford Arms pub on Warwick Lane. The pamphlet is sycophantically written, asserting 'His Philosophy is followed by all of England... in short, he was rever'd so much that Death could not add new Honours to him'. It is also patriotic in tone, mocking 'M. Leibnitz, his Antagonist, who died also Rich, tho' much inferior to Sir Isaac Newton'.

Oxford Arms pub where the Life of Sir Isaac Newton was sold (as stated in publisher's imprint). Photograph taken in 1875, the year before it was demolished.


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Martin, Benjamin (1705–1782)
A plain and familiar introduction to the Newtonian experimental philosophy. 5th edition. (London: Printed for the author; and sold at his shop in Fleet Street, 1765.), 3s 6d STORE 19:30

An eighteenth-century 'Newton for Dummies', this work was priced at 3s 6d, not an insignificant amount for a London craftsman earning around 12s a week, but still affordable to a comparatively wide metropolitan audience. Aimed at those aspiring to gentility, it promises to put the reader at 'very little Expense, either of Time or Money to acquire a very considerable knowledge of all the principle Branches of this most valuable and delightful science'. 

Instruments used to carry out the experiments.While the frontispiece advertises that the book does not involve any mathematics – something off-putting to the casual Newtonian enthusiast or aspiring gentleman – the back of the book lists other commentaries on Newton by the same author, Benjamin Martin, progressing with increasingly levels of difficulty. The copper plate displayed shows the different instruments used to carry out experiments – all sold at Martin's shop. This book appears to have been immensely popular, warranting over five editions.