By Sam Kean
Humanities, Volume 32, Number 1 (January/February 2011)
Precisely at 1 p.m., just after luncheon on July 13, 1936, bidding opened on a remarkable lot at Sotheby’s auction house in London: a metal chest full of Isaac Newton’s private, hand-written papers and lab books, some almost three hundred years old, most never published.
When Cambridge University, Newton’s alma mater, had acquired the trove in 1872, a team of scholars had dedicated sixteen years to cataloging the contents. This was Newton, after all, and they were hungry for any insight into how he’d developed his theories of motion, gravity, light, and color—work that defines the very Newtonian universe we inhabit.
Strangely, after riffling through and picking out select papers, Cambridge returned virtually the entire bundle to the owner, the Earl of Portsmouth. Soon forgotten, the chest barely survived a house fire in 1891, and by 1936 one of the Earl’s descendents was selling it to make some quick cash. Sotheby’s itself barely publicized the sale—it was easily overshadowed that season by a spectacular, £140,000 auction of Rubens and Rembrandt paintings through rival house Christie’s. As the gavel fell for the last time at Sotheby’s on July 14, the bulk of Newton’s life’s work had been split up among three dozen book buyers for a pitiful £9,000.
Economist John Maynard Keynes, a Newton admirer, was one of those three dozen, though he’d heard about the auction too late to buy much. Disturbed by the “impiety” of the transactions, he began acquiring more of the papers piecemeal. In many cases, he had to play the slick antiquarian, swapping Newton papers with collectors, trying to out-connive them. Keynes later remembered, with a touch of Bloomsbury snobbery, “I managed gradually to reassemble about half of them. . . . The greater part of the rest were snatched out of my reach by a syndicate which hoped to sell them at a high price, probably in America.”