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Blog

Newton’s first paper among newly opened archive

By James Dacey

Newton’s first published scientific paper and James Clerk Maxwell’s paper describing his electromagnetic theory of light are among the Royal Society’s historical journal archive, which from today is permanently free to access online. More than 60 000 papers are available in a searchable database where all papers published more than 70 years ago (all 8000 of them) are free to view online or download.

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Newton – who was president of the Royal Society between 1703 and 1727 – had his first paper published in Philosophical Transactions in 1671, in which he presented his New Theory of Light and Colors. Unlike the convention in modern scientific papers, Newton writes in the first person throughout and he begins with this meandering description of how this research came about:


To perform my late promise to you, I shall without further ceremony acquaint you, that in the beginning of the Year 1666 (at which I applyed my self to the grinding of Optick glasses of other figures than Sperical,) I procured me a Triangular glass-Prisme, to try therewith the celebrated Phenomena of Colours.

Newton went on to publish his full treatise on the behaviour of light in his famous book of 1704, Opticks.

Another incredibly important paper now freely available to the public is Maxwell’s Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic field , published in 1865. This paper came after Maxwell had first published his famous equations but it appears to have been the first time that Maxwell presented his argument that light is an electromagnetic field. The language in this paper is far more familiar to the modern English reader, as when he presents the basis of his idea in the introduction:

The electromagnetic field is that part of space which contains and surrounds bodies in electric or magnetic conditions. It may be filled with any kind of matter, or we may endeavour to render it empty of all gross matter, as in the case of GEISSLER’s tubes and other so-called vacua. There is always, however, enough of matter left to receive and transmit the undulations of light and heat…

The opening of the Philosophical Transactions archive comes during Open Access week, and it also follows shortly after the Royal Society announced the creation of its first ever open access journal – Open Biology. Other interesting papers in the archives include Benjamin Franklin’s account of his electrical kite experiments and geological work by a young Charles Darwin.

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