CIRCA:The Chymistry of Issac Newton


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The Chymistry of Isaac Newton Project is an endeavour hosted by the Digital Library Program at Indiana University (IU). Researchers on the project are producing electronic editions of the more than 100 alchemically based writings of Isaac Newton, most of which have never been edited. It is an example of a truly interdisciplinary venture, involving scholars from the Humanities, Sciences, and Library and Information Sciences working together to display, analyze and recreate Newton’s experiments.


Project History

The Chymistry of Isaac Newton is an ongoing project which began in 2005 out of Indiana University’s Digital Library Program. It was headed by William R. Newman, a Professor in the Department of the History & Philosophy of Science at IU who has worked extensively on the history of alchemy and alchemists, and John A. Walsh, an IU Assistant Professor of Library and Information Science who focuses on digital tools and environments. The project is funded by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Science Foundation.

The origins of the project go back to 1936 when the British auction house Sotheby’s sold a lot of 329 never-printed manuscripts which had been owned or written by Sir Isaac Newton. That over a third of these texts dealt with alchemical subject matter should have been a revelation to historian and scientist communities, but the material was largely ignored by scholars for decades. From the 1970s onward select authors, particularly B.J.T. Dobbs and Richard Westfall, began publishing research addressing Newton’s fascination with alchemy, but the subject remained under-explored, in part because no scholarly editions of the manuscripts existed.

In 1998 The Newton Project, hosted by the University of Sussex, began transcribing all of Newton’s manuscripts and creating a comprehensive electronic edition. This spawned two sister projects: The Newton Project Canada at King’s College in Halifax, and The Chymistry of Isaac Newton at Indiana University. The former focuses on Newton’s theological and prophetic themed writings, while the latter tackles his alchemical works.

The Chymistry of Isaac Newton Project seeks to enhance awareness and understanding of Newton’s writings on alchemy by efforts in three areas:

Scholarly Editions

As the foundation of the entire project, extensive work has been done to produce electronic versions of all of Newton’s alchemical-themed works. At its current stage these editions contain the following features:

Manuscripts Images – photos or scans of every folio of the manuscripts
Diplomatic Transcriptions – typed reproductions of the manuscripts meant to follow the original as closely as possible, including deletions and errors
Normalized Transcriptions – typed reproductions of the manuscripts meant to convey the intended meaning, not to represent the folios precisely

The editions are also presently searchable for both text and symbols. Planned future additions include complete annotations and translations of Latin text into English.

Research Tools

In order to help researchers better understand and analyze the scholarly editions of Newton’s texts, The Chymistry of Isaac Newton Project has also created several online tools.

An Alchemical Glossary provides explanations of numerous terms used in the manuscripts which are unique to the alchemical arts, or have a specific meaning in an alchemical context. Similarly, a transcription of the Index Chemicus Ordinatus provides the definitions of terms as understood by Newton. Currently, however, the Index is presented in the original Latin, making it useful only to those familiar with the language.

In a similar vein, a Symbol Guide provides an explanation for what Newton meant by the various alchemical symbols used in his writings, some of which were familiar conventions and some of which were of his own design. This guide is also a work-in-progress, with additions being made to it as more symbols are decoded. In addition a downloadable Newton Font was produced by the project to allow researchers to quote from the manuscripts even if there were symbols present.

Perhaps the most ambitious research tool resulting from the project is a Latent Semantic Analysis (LSA) tool for studying the text. This instrument enables scholars to quickly compare the electronic editions for parallels by analyzing the frequency of related terms. The LSA tool allows a user to find similarly themed sections or “chunks” of text without reading through all of the documents.


A concurrent activity of The Chymistry of Isaac Newton Project is the recreation of numerous experiments described by Newton based on the transcriptions of the manuscripts. Accounts of the success or failure of these trials, as well as of challenges faced by experimenters, help scholars to understand how Isaac Newton thought about science and alchemy. For example, the steps Newton left out of his notebook suggest his familiarity with the art, as “chymical practitioners usually neglected to record processes and steps that they viewed as trivial or commonplace”[1]. The avenue of experimentation is unique to the Indiana University branch of The Newton Project and helps distinguish it from its sisters.

Publications and Press

The activities of The Chymistry of Isaac Newton Project have resulted in numerous scholarly articles and presentations directed towards audiences in the humanities, sciences, computing technologies, and information sciences. Examples include “Geochemical Concepts in Isaac Newton's Early Alchemy” by William Newman, as well as Cesare Pastorino, Tamara Lopez, and John A. Walsh’s "The Digital Index Chemicus: toward a digital tool for studying Isaac Newton's Index Chemicus". A complete listing of the scholarship produced by the project is available on their website.

The experimental side of the project was also featured in the 2005 NOVA/BBC documentary “Newton’s Dark Secrets” which aired on PBS. This exposure took the project beyond the world of academic scholarship and revealed Newton’s interest in alchemy to the general public.

Technologies and Innovations

The heart of The Chymistry of Isaac Newton Project is the transcription and markup of Newton’s alchemical manuscripts to create electronic editions. This was accomplished using XML tags in accordance with TEI P4 standards. Some features of the manuscripts, however, including symbols, figures, and poetry, required the invention of new tags. The program Oxygen XML Editor was employed by the project to create TEI documents.

The wide array of alchemical symbols found in the manuscripts, some standard and some of Newton’s own design, also required the creation of a Unicode private character range. The characters in this range were included in the Unicode 6.0 standard released in 2010. The symbols were also incorporated into the Newton Font available on the project’s website for use in word processors.

The Latent Semantic Analysis (LSA) research tool created by the project draws on principles of latent semantic analysis, a “technique in natural language processing”[2] patented in 1988. The Chymistry of Isaac Newton Project has effectively done the legwork of such an analysis by creating a matrix of word counts and term repetition for Newton’s alchemical manuscripts which is available to the public. A latent semantic analysis can thus be performed on the electronic editions with a few clicks of a mouse.


From a technological standpoint, The Chymistry of Isaac Newton Project has made several small but noteworthy additions to practices for creating electronic editions, most markedly new Unicode characters to represent alchemical symbols. In addition, the Latent Semantic Analysis (LSA) research tool is a useful way of assessing Newton’s alchemical manuscripts for theme, and the program could be adapted to other electronic edition projects in the future. Overall, however, the strength of The Chymistry of Isaac Newton Project is not in technological innovation.

This project is an excellent example of how interdisciplinary work can improve research in a wide array of fields. Collaboration between scholars in the humanities and information sciences has produced an accessible electronic edition of previously under-utilized documents and has thereby increased research into Newton’s fascination with alchemy. The experimental theme of the manuscripts has also attracted academics from the sciences, and recreations of Newton’s methods have led to a better understanding of his scientific theories. The Chymistry of Isaac Newton Project is thus an ideal model for what can be produced by the inter-departmental cooperation of scholars.


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