Learning and Teaching

Private Scholar & Public Servant

Work by Hand & Brain

Calculation and Controversy

Glory and Gravity

Making Sense of Motion

From Library to Laboratory

Duty and Dominion

Footprints of the Lion

Cambridge Unviersity Library

Previous Exhibitions

Newton lectures

Opening times and map


The University Library has been at the heart of scholarship in Cambridge for over six hundred years. It is one of the great research libraries of the world, used by scholars from all corners of the globe. The Library's collections have been described in the national press as 'the most accessible collection of literary treasure on this side of the Atlantic'; 'walking around its mile on mile of… corridors, you know you are walking around the world mind.'

These collections, which now occupy over 160 kilometres of shelves, have been built up by a combination of donation and purchase, augmented over the last three-hundred years by the legal deposit privilege. In that time, the Library has acquired many individual items and collections of international significance, but few can match the importance of the purchase, in 2000, of the collection of scientific papers from the library of the Earl of Macclesfield.

The Macclesfield Collection was the most important and valuable collection of scientific papers still in private hands in Britain. It documents Sir Isaac Newton's writings and ideas, in letters and manuscripts, on gravitation, calculus, the Principia mathematica, optics, chemistry, comets and other subjects. Although widely known for his discovery of universal gravitation, Newton's scientific and intellectual interests were vast, and this range of creative thinking is reflected in these papers.

Since the 'scientific revolution' of the seventeenth century, in which Newton played such a key part, society has been more and more dominated by scientific and technological developments. It would be difficult to find a more striking and graphic illustration of the historical background to this scientific age than the Macclesfield Collection. The collection consists of around 500 manuscript notebooks and a further 500 or so unbound documents. Most of the letters are from the years of Newton's greatest creativity as a mathematician (1664-1672). Though many of the Newton materials have been published in some form, scholars still need to have access to the originals to verify doubtful points in the printed texts. Most of the rest of the collection is completely unknown to scholars, access to it having been restricted in the past. Its acquisition and the provision by the University Library of access to it will lead to new research and publication in this important area.

The collection was offered to the Library for £6,370,000, a price that reflected the extremely active market in scientific manuscripts and books. In July 2000, the Heritage Lottery Fund provided a grant of £4,790,000, representing 75% of the total purchase price, the maximum the Lottery can offer, but leaving the Library with £1,580,000 to find. Thanks to the generosity of many individuals and institutions, the appeal to raise the balance of the purchase price was spectacularly successful, and before the end of 2000 the Library was able to confirm its purchase of the collection.

The major donors to the appeal are listed elsewhere in this catalogue but I wish to record here our gratitude to all those who supported the campaign, not just those who so generously offered hundreds of thousands of pounds or dollars, but also to those of more moderate means who, nonetheless, believed that the campaign to save this collection was so important that they wanted to do their bit and who sent cheques for £20 or $20. All this support was important and we are very grateful to all who helped.

The career of Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) is closely linked with the University of Cambridge. He matriculated at Trinity College, Cambridge in 1661 and became a fellow of Trinity in 1667, occupying the rooms to the north of the Great Gate. He was Lucasian Professor of Mathematics in the University from 1669 to 1701 (the position currently held by Professor Stephen Hawking), and Member of Parliament for the University in 1689-1690 and 1701-1702.

Even before the acquisition of the Macclesfield Collection, Cambridge University Library held by far the most extensive and important group of his scientific papers, chiefly in the Portsmouth Collection, which had been presented to the Library by the fifth Earl of Portsmouth in 1872. The Library also holds manuscripts of Newton's lectures as Lucasian Professor, as well as records of his Cambridge career. There are other smaller collections of Newton's scientific papers in British institutions (notably in the libraries of King's College, Trinity College and the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, the British Library, the Bodleian Library in Oxford, and the Royal Society) as well as collections of his papers on alchemy, chronology, theology, and other subjects, in various British and foreign libraries.

The Macclesfield and Portsmouth Collections are closely interrelated. Material on some topics, such as the dispute with Leibniz over priority in the invention of the infinitesimal calculus, is spread over both collections and, in some cases, replies to letters in one are to be found in the other. For instance, each collection has correspondence between Newton and John Collins and between Newton and Henry Oldenburg - the Portsmouth Collection contains a letter from Collins to Newton dated 2 July 1672 and the Macclesfield Collection has Newton's replies dated 6 and 8 July. The correspondence of John Flamsteed, Astronomer Royal, in the Macclesfield Collection, complements his correspondence in the Royal Greenwich Observatory Archives, also housed in the University Library.

The acquisition by the University Library of the Macclesfield Collection means that two major sections of the Isaac Newton archive, separated following his death, are now reunited in Cambridge for the benefit of scholars and the public. This important purchase provided the stimulus for this exhibition, celebrating one of Cambridge's greatest minds and the man described as the father of modern mathematics. The exhibition has been devised by Scott Mandelbrote, Newton scholar and fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge. It draws not just on the Portsmouth and Macclesfield collections but on other parts of the University Library's extensive holdings of scientific material, as well as on collections elsewhere in Cambridge and further afield. Our thanks are due to those institutions which have kindly lent material.

The exhibition is the eighth to be held in the University Library's Exhibition Centre, which was opened in 1998 to provide a wider public than can normally be admitted to the reading rooms with the opportunity of seeing some of the treasures housed within the Library's walls. After the opening exhibition, 'The Great Collections', which was accompanied by a lavishly illustrated book,1 the series of displays that followed has shown something of the range of the Library's collections, covering such diverse topics as Oliver Cromwell, post-war Germany, maps of Australia, 'time', children's books, and the Armistice. It is fitting that the Library is able to celebrate the acquisition of such a major collection, acquired with the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund, in an exhibition centre, the creation of which was also partly supported by the same fund.

Peter Fox - Librarian

Click this button to see the cover of the catalogue

back to the top