Isaac Newton’s “philosopher’s stone” manuscript was recently discovered amid documents purchased at a February auction. The 17th-century document, which was acquired by The Chemical Heritage Foundation, contains a handwritten “recipe” for “sophick mercury,” which is an essential ingredient in the production of the legendary stone.
As described by the University of Florida, Sir Isaac Newton is “generally regarded as the most original and influential theorist in the history of science.” Although he is best known for his laws of motion and universal gravitation, the scientist also had a keen interest in alchemy.
Alchemy, which is a controversial combination of chemical science and speculative philosophy, was popular throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Although widely regarded as a pseudoscience, the ultimate goal of alchemy was to produce gold out of base metals.
Isaac Newton’s quest for the philosopher’s stone was not unusual, as the substance was believed to be alchemy’s missing link.
A vital component of the fabled philosopher’s stone was a substance called sophick mercury. As reported by CNN, the newly found manuscript contains a recipe for sophick mercury — which was provided to Newton by Harvard alchemist George Starkey.
Chemical Heritage Foundation’s Othmer Library of Chemical History curator James Voelkel discusses the significance of Isaac Newton’s philosopher’s stone manuscript.
“… it helps us understand Newton’s alchemical reading — especially of his favorite author — and gives us evidence of one more of his laboratory procedures.”
A native of Lincolnshire, England, Isaac Newton was expected to carry on his family tradition of becoming a farmer. However, at the age of 18, Newton left home to attend Cambridge University.
— CNN (@CNN) April 7, 2016
Following his graduation in 1665, Isaac returned home — as England was overcome with the plague. Although he did not return to Cambridge for two years, he continued his studies at home, where he reportedly “laid the foundations for his theory of light and color… and the problem of planetary motion.”
Upon returning to Cambridge University in 1667, Isaac Newton began working toward his master of arts degree, which he was awarded in 1669. He was appointed as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics shortly thereafter.
— ShireHakel (@ShiCooks) April 7, 2016
Isaac Newton’s interest in the philosopher’s stone, and alchemy in general, began following an emotional breakdown in 1678. As he spent a majority of his time alone, the scientist concentrated on his interest in alchemical research and began writing the manuscript that was purchased at an auction in February.
Throughout his career, the scientist earned a reputation as a brilliant scientist, whose theories remain significant to this day. However, the degree of Isaac Newton’s interest in the philosopher’s stone was not fully known until more than 280 years after his death.
James Voelkel said Newton’s “alchemical manuscripts consist of about a million words he wrote in his own hands,” which suggests he “was intensely interested in alchemy almost his whole life.”
News Everyday reports Isaac Newton’s philosopher’s stone manuscript was never published, as it was deemed “not fit to be printed.” According to reports, the documents remained in the Newton family until 1936, when they were auctioned to a private collector by Sotheby’s.
— The Economist (@TheEconomist) March 31, 2016
The manuscript remained in the possession of the collector until it was acquired by The Chemical Heritage Foundation in February.
National Geographic reports the foundation is currently scanning Isaac Newton’s philosopher’s stone manuscript so the digital images can be uploaded and shared online.
[Image via Sir Godfrey Kneller [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]