Newton’s handwritten mid-17th-century document unveils his alchemical reading
The Chemical Heritage Foundation, a non-profit based in Philadelphia, has been able to get control of Isaac Newton’s manuscript through an auction carried out in February 2016. For most of the 20th century, the mid-17th century handwritten manuscript was in private hands.
The document has the formulas that Newton once hoped to use in his alchemic work. Among them include the instructions required to create sophick mercury, a substance needed to make the legendary Philosopher’s stone.
Newton had copied the formula by hand from a text by American alchemist George Starkey and then added his own notes to the back of the document. Experts said that the notes written by Newton will help them know how he interpreted the complex instructions used by alchemists.
James Voelkel, curator of rare books at the Chemical Heritage Foundation's Othmer Library of Chemical History, said, “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 procedures”.
During the 17th century, alchemy was also known as chymistry. The field was dependent on the belief that metals were made up of different compounds, including a mercuric or sulfuric principle. If a change is included in the principles then the metal is also changed.
Newton has also written other unrelated notes on the distillation of iron ore on the back of manuscript. Experts said that they can be considered as laboratory notes of process that Newton has tried or was considering to work upon.
Science historian William Newman of Indiana University was of the view that the newly acquired manuscript will help scholars understand how alchemy has influenced Newton. Voelek said that one thing is certain that Newton approached alchemy and physics in a similar way.