I got a real thrill in December 1999 in the Reading Room of the Morgan Library in New York when the librarian, Sylvie Merian, brought me, after I had completed an application with a letter of reference and a photo ID, the first, oldest notebook of Isaac Newton. First I was required to study a microfilm version. There followed a certain amount of appropriate pomp. The notebook was lifted from a blue cloth drop-spine box and laid on a special padded stand. I was struck by how impossibly tiny it was — 58 leaves bound in vellum, just 2 3/4 inches wide, half the size I would have guessed from the enlarged microfilm images. There was his name, “Isacus Newton,” proudly inscribed by the 17-year-old with his quill, and the date, 1659.
“He filled the pages with meticulous script, the letters and numerals often less than one-sixteenth of an inch high,” I wrote in my book “Isaac Newton” a few years later. “He began at both ends and worked toward the middle.”
Apparently historians know the feeling well — the exhilaration that comes from handling the venerable original. It’s a contact high. In this time of digitization, it is said to be endangered. The Morgan Notebook of Isaac Newton is online now (thanks to the Newton Project at the University of Sussex). You can surf it.
The raw material of history appears to be heading for the cloud. What once was hard is now easy. What was slow is now fast.