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The fishy blunder that nearly prevented Newton’s masterpiece from being published

19 April 2012

This striking image – released today by the Royal Society as part of its new online picture library – has a surprising history and nearly prevented one of the greatest works in the history of science from being published.

The seventeenth century engraving of a flying fish appears on the Royal Society’s newest online resource, a searchable picture library which allows web users to browse and search the Society’s vast collection of images online for the first time. The picture is one of a set of engravings from John Ray and Francis Willughby’s 1686 book Historia Piscium, or “a History of Fishes”. This work, largely forgotten today, was considered groundbreaking at the time of its publication, and the early Royal Society poured all of its funds in to publishing the lavishly illustrated book.

Ray and Willughby’s Historia did not prove to be the publishing sensation that the Fellows had hoped and the book nearly bankrupted the Society. This meant that the Society was unable to meet its promise to support the publication of Isaac Newton’s masterpiece Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (“Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy”).

Fortunately, a young Edmund Halley – then Clerk at the Royal Society – saw the promise in Newton’s work and managed to raise the funds to publish the Principia, providing much of the money from his own pocket. Newton’s book was finally published in 1687, changing the way we view the world forever.

Professor Jonathan Ashmore FRS, Chair of the Royal Society’s Library Committee, said: “While it may seem surprising to some people that the early Fellows of the Royal Society nearly passed up the opportunity to publish Newton’s Principia, we mustn’t forget that Halley, Newton, Ray and Willughby were all working in the very earliest days of the scientific revolution. Although the Principia may have gone on to achieve lasting fame and glory, we hope that visitors to our new online picture resource will be able to appreciate why early Fellows of the Royal Society were so impressed by Willughby’s stunning illustrations of piscine natural history.”

“The Royal Society’s new online picture library is a fantastic resource for anybody who has an interest in the history of science. While the site already contains more than a thousand images we plan to continually add to this resource, so that a growing selection of the Royal Society’s wonderful image archive will be available to anybody with access to the internet.”

Visitors to the Royal Society’s new online picture library can now view selected engravings from Willughby’s work, among more than a thousand other images spanning the Royal Society’s 350 year history. This is the first time that the Society’s image archive has been available online and visitors to the site will find a diverse array of images from the Society’s rich history.

Highlights include Robert Hooke’s celebrated 17th century engravings of the microscopic world (some of the first images to ever be drawn directly from a microscope); Portraits of Fellows of the Royal Society from its earliest days to modern times; as well as lesser-known gems such as James Gillray’s cartoon satirising leading scientific figures of his day and illustrations from Captain James Cook’s voyages to Tahiti.