The Newton Project

EN / HY 500: Digital Humanities

Spring 2015

The Newton Project

Project Name: The Newton Project

Project URL:

Project Author and Team:

Directors: Rob Iliffe; Editor, Scott Mandelbrote

Staff: Technical Development and Web Manager: Michael Hawkins; Transcription manager Cesare Pastorino; Transcription and XML Tagging Manager: John Young

Translator: Michael Silverthorne

Editorial Board: Antonio Clericuzio, William Newman, Lawrence Principe, Sephen Snobelen, Peter Spargo

Reviewed by: D. Geoffrey Emerson

Review Date: 3/4/15

Tags or keywords: Newton, Isaac; theology; science; alchemy; mathematics; intellectual history;


This project is a combination of an electronic scholarly edition, a digital archive, and a digital research environment. The project team expands on their capacities in these areas in their explanation of the project. While the project does provide all of Newton’s writings, published and unpublished, the project seems to focus on Newton’s theological tracts.

Project Objectives:

The Newton Project was founded to provide the public with all of Newton’s writings, particularly his theological tracts for which they provide translations. The project does, however, provide all his writings with a catalog entry, a normalized text, and a diplomatic text, all of which are produced with TEI mark-up P5. In addition, the documents link to color images of their manuscripts—both so the project can continue to refine their work, and as a reference for visitors of the site. Aside from the main goal of providing users with access to Newton’s writings, the project also provides a great deal of contextual material. It has constructed separate biographical models in for the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries while providing manuscript access to those materials. It has constructed a catalog of Newton’s library, and a comprehensive history of Newton’s papers which were sole and shipped across the world a number of times.

Review: Essay form. Consider some of the following:

The Newton Project offers the entirety of Sir Isaac Newton’s corpus, published and unpublished as well as a wide array of contextual materials. Each of the primary text is rendered as a normalized text, a diplomatic text, and links to color images of the manuscript, and are divided into the genres alchemy, mathematics, theology, and science. The Project’s particular focus is Newton’s theological writings which are provided in both Latin and English translations. Among the contextual materials are a catalog of Newton’s personal library, profiles of his personality in both the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and a history of the sales and travels of Newton’s papers.

The scope of the project is considerable. Having transcribed 6.4 million words so far, The Newton Project is a considerable undertaking and produces a dense dataset. Despite the immensity, however, the project is very user-friendly. While the website demands a little reading from the users to orient themselves in the project’s content, the authors provide a comprehensive tour of the available materials as well as a menu system that is easy to navigate.

The Newton Project is intent on rendering as much information as possible, including a digital normalized text, a diplomatic text, and color images of the manuscripts. What this means, is that the project is committed to offering scholars that use the site as much data as possible to accomplish research goals (both planned and unplanned). The authors of the project are well aware of their editorial decisions as an intersection of the transcription, encoding, coding, and publishing processes, but they attempt to present this process as transparently as possible in their introductory material.

The project is open access for the public. The editorial board explains this decision saying, “a feature that offers significant benefits in terms of outreach and the potential for future crowdsourcing.” This approach, however, is not without cost, as they go on to explain. Some of the material is difficult or impossible to make available because some of the images are owned by private parties or other institutions. The project does credit The National Library of Israel, who owns many of Newton’s manuscripts, for their cooperation in this project.

The wide array of primary and contextual materials creates an excellent research environment. It seems, however, that the contextual material could be organized more effectively as a web-based media. The text is extensive, and their thoroughness is appreciated, but the amount of text in a wide layout make for difficult reading—especially for users from the general public. In addition it is clear that the site could serve as a community hub for scholars to share the work they produce while working with the project. This would do two things 1) offer novice users of the project a sense of what they can accomplish with the tools and data the project offers, and 2) it would intensify awareness of the complexities of such a foundational figure of western culture. While the project is open about its encoding procedure, the encoding of the individual primary texts is not easily accessible. I think providing their TEI and MathML encoding techniques with uses would increase its relationship with the Digital Humanities community more broadly.

The Newton Project allows users to explore most of Sir Isaac Newton’s life and works, but more than that, the project’s dedication to rendering as much information as possible and openly discussing their process make their digital product extremely valuable. Newton provides interdisciplinary studies in the humanities with a wealth of possibilities since his writing interests range from the hard sciences, to the theological, to the alchemical. Providing an open access digital archive and research environment is a service to both scholarly and public audiences alike.

The Newton Project’s two man strengths are 1) its ability to render both normalized and diplomatic texts, and offer color images of the manuscript pages, and 2) carefully constructed contextual materials. While The Newton Project does not provide clear access to their TEI and MathML encoding, which would offer interested parties in the Digital Humanities the opportunity to evaluate specific decisions, they are open about their process and procedures in their discussion of the project. In addition, by providing users with three ways to access most of Newton’s texts, the project establishes some openness for their editorial process. This openness offers users the opportunity not only for deep analysis, but to understand and reinterpret the editors’ decisions. The collection of contextual materials is just as impressive, for public and scholarly audiences alike. The project’s authors express a desire to balance textual and contextual concerns in their editorial process, and the materials they provide are instrumental in understanding how they negotiate these concerns. Further, the insights presented in the continual materials improve the accessibility of the site for public users and educational applications of the project.

Overall, the Newton Project is a valuable addition to the DH world as it presents a wealth of primary and contextual information on a multi-dimensional thinker in science, theology, and mathematics. The project’s mission of providing open access to an online edition of Newton’s writing and an impressive textual dataset is a significant contribution to the History and Philosophy of Science, and Theology, which has countless applications across the Humanities, digital and otherwise. Further, I think my desire for more information speaks to the value of the work conducted at the Newton Project.

Similar Projects:

The Chymistry of Isaac Newton Project at Indiana University

The Newton Project Canada at King’s College, Halifax, Nova Scotia

The Cambridge University Digital Library (CUDL)

The National Library of Israel (NLI).


2 thoughts on “The Newton Project

  1. Susanna Coleman

    I can understand how Newton felt like nothing he did was finished… I feel like that all the time! I agree that digital is great for that, because I can update my work whenever I add to it. …I also never knew Newton wrote any theology.

    The site looks a bit odd in how it only has about a paragraph of information on each page. I understand they wanted to divide their profiles of Newton up by topic, but I feel like I would get tired of clicking a link after each paragraph just to get more information. Maybe they could have made their categories more broad to have more information on each page?

    The text catalog is impressive though! Like I commented on Emily’s review, I would definitely use this site if I had to teach anything related to Newton. (Wish it had been around when I wrote about him and calculus as an undergrad…)

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