It isn’t every day that a privately held manuscript by one of the most famous scientists in history is put online, but Sir Isaac Newton’s copy of an alchemist manuscript will be put in an online database.

The manuscript was written by hand in the 17th-century by Sir Isaac Newton, who copied it from alchemist George Starkey. After being held in a private collection for decades, the manuscript will now provide the public with a much better idea of Newton’s work, writes James Rogers for Discovery.

Newton's Alchemy Manuscript
Image Credit: Chemical Heritage Foundation

Nonprofit uploads manuscript for study

A Philadelphia-based nonprofit organization called the Chemical Heritage Foundation purchased the manuscript in February. It is now uploading digital images and transcriptions for study.

The manuscript relates to the preparation of “sophick mercury,” which scientists saw as essential in the manufacture of the “philosopher’s stone” which would turn base metals into gold. It was written in Latin and English.

“The significance of the manuscript is that it helps us understand Newton’s alchemical reading–especially of his favorite author — and gives us evidence of one more of his laboratory procedure,” explained James Voelkel, curator of rare books at the Othmer Library of Chemical History.

Newton took a keen interest in alchemy

According to Voelkel there are dozens of alchemical manuscripts by Newton. Researchers estimate that the celebrated physicist wrote around 1,000,000 words on the quest to turn base metals into gold over the course of his life. “Our manuscript is just one among these,” he added.

In 1678 Starkey published a manuscript in Latin on sophick mercury under the pen name Eirenaeus Philalethes. However the Newton manuscript is a copy of another piece of text, which may even have been written before 1678.

“We can tell this from Newton’s comments in square brackets that either expand abbreviations in the other manuscript or correct it,” Voelkel explained.

Celebrated physicist thought chemistry and alchemy were the same

The manuscript which was purchased recently also has unrelated notes on the distillation of iron ore. They “may well be laboratory notes of a process Newton had tried or was thinking of trying,” said Voelkel. “Like many of us, when Newton needed a place to jot something down, he would sometimes just turn over a manuscript and write on the blank page on the back.”

Voelkel is resident scholar at the Beckman Center for the History of Chemistry, and said that alchemy and chemistry were thought of as one and the same in Newton’s time. “It was not until around the time of Newton’s death that professional chemists ‘rebranded’ chemistry, relegating gold-making to an enterprise now derogatorily labeled ‘alchemy’ and keeping the respectable parts in ‘chemistry’,” he said.

Alchemy is now referred to as “junk science” and it may be surprising to learn that such a famous mind spent so much time thinking about it. However in those days it was a common area of research.

“Newton is an interesting alchemist because he’s systematic about it,” Voelkel said. “He would reference back to each individual alchemical author, which page they’d use this term, and tried to do a data-driven analysis.”

Chemistry lagged behind physics in terms of the development of modern science. “Unlike with physics, by the end of the 17th century, there isn’t a clear victory. Chemistry is still muddling, said Voelkel. “You have Newton, so renowned for cracking the physics part of it, he’s muddling along with the rest of the 17th-century people”.

“In some ways, it’s so difficult that even Newton couldn’t solve it.”