You are here

Mathematical Treasure: Critical Edition of Newton's Principia

Frank J. Swetz (Pennsylvania State University) and Sidney J. Kolpas (Delaware County Community College)

Thomas Le Seur (1703–1770) and Francois Jacquier (1711–1788) were French mathematicians, Franciscan priests, and fellow professors of mathematics in Rome. During the period 1739–1742, they published a critical edition of Newton’s Principia. Besides their comments, expressed in abundant footnotes, the three volumes also contained commentaries by Daniel Bernoulli, Colin Maclaurin, and Leonard Euler. The book was published in Geneva and became known as the “Jesuit edition.” The title page is shown here.

Commentary was supplied via a system of extensive footnotes. This pattern can be seen in the first three pages of text proper.

Among the preliminary materials presented are the three prefaces from Newton’s three editions. The Preface from Newton’s third edition is shown below.

The images above are presented courtesy of ETH-Bibliotheka Zürich, and are available via e-rara.

Dr. Sid Kolpas also owns a copy of this landmark edition. The illustration of the binding and inscription below provides information on its provenance, or history of ownership. The book was presented to James Coffin in 1777; The abbreviations “E Don. Sid. Coll. Cant.” translate from Latin to “a gift from Sidney Sussex College Cambridge University.” Cambridge University records indicate that James Coffin (1756–1833) received the book as a prize for his strong performance on the Mathematical Tripos (the comprehensive final examinations in mathematics for graduation with honors), thus being awarded a first-class degree as well as the prize book. Like all Cambridge students at the time, Coffin studied theology, classics, and mathematics at the university. He was made a Scholar of Sidney Sussex (one of the Cambridge colleges) in 1776. He later went into the ministry, a typical career path for 18th-century college graduates. For more information, see Sidney Kolpas, “The Quest for James Coffin,” The Book Collector 39, no. 2 (Summer 1990): 220–234.

Page of Sid Kolpas's copy of Jesuit Principia indicating provenance.

Index to Mathematical Treasures


Frank J. Swetz (Pennsylvania State University) and Sidney J. Kolpas (Delaware County Community College), "Mathematical Treasure: Critical Edition of Newton's Principia," Convergence (May 2019)