Newton’s Working Practices (1) – Catchy Stuff…

Last week saw many historians of science and medicine participating in the annual BSHS conference, this year hosted by the University of St Andrews. It was a wonderful meeting with many interesting papers, focussing on all things scientific, from ancient Assyrian kiln-building to sermons from science. Yours truly delivered a paper on Newton’s manuscripts and working methods, using state of the art digital tools to look for and answer questions that were hitherto unspoken. In this blog post I will focus on one of these questions: catchwords.


With so many Newtonian manuscripts readily available in both high-quality images and transcriptions, there is a treasure grove waiting to be mined. Many of the manuscripts that we have appear to be incomplete: the narrative begins or stops mid-sentence. Newton frequently used catchwords: a repetition of the first one or two words of the new page, written at the bottom of the preceding page.

Catchword “For” referring to the first word on the next page
First word on the next page








A quick survey using the majority of Newton’s texts on world history or chronology shows an astonishing number of missing catchwords, or better: catchwords that do not match the text on the following page. This does not come as a surprise, since we know that most of Newton’s manuscripts have been reordered by others throughout the ages, thereby destroying Newton’s original order. All we need to do is match catchwords with pages that have the wrong or no preceding page, right?

Well, it’s not that easy. Take for instance the following example:

Bottom of page 4r
Pages 5r, 7r & 9r

Here we have a single catchword on page 4r of a manuscripts, followed by three pages (5r, 7r, 9r), all from the same manuscript, with the same catchwords. A closer look at these pages shows that we have three versions of the same text. Apparently Newton is reusing the first page (4r) in various versions of his texts. In other words: there might not be a missing page at all.


So far I have looked at about 70 per cent of the chronological texts, and I haven’t found a single matching catchword. Even if we take into account many instances of page reuse, as in the example I showed above, this is surprising. Those manuscripts and pages that start mid sentence might not have had a preceding page with catchword, since Newton did not always use these. But where Newton did write a catchword, we would expect at least one page in the corpus starting with that catchword, and with a matching narrative continuation. My current research is aimed at finding these pages using modern techniques like topic modelling and latent semantic analysis, techniques that I will explain in the future. But right now I have got a creepy feeling that we might actually miss a substantial number of Newton manuscript pages…

Next time: a fresh look at Newton’s citation practices…


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