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To scrutinize the whole of Nature: The Royal Society and its fellows 1660-1730

Newton's Opticks

Title page of Isaac Newton's Opticks : or, a treatise of the reflexions, refractions, inflexions and colours of light. Also two treatises of the species and magnitude of curvilinear figures. London: printed for Sam. Smith, and Benj. Walford,1704 [Rare Books Collection QC353.N4 Op7]Title page of Isaac Newton's Opticks : or, a treatise of the reflexions, refractions, inflexions and colours of light. Also two treatises of the species and magnitude of curvilinear figures. London: printed for Sam. Smith, and Benj. Walford,1704 [Rare Books Collection QC353.N4 Op7]Newton’s second major work, Opticks, a study of the nature of light, colour and diffraction, was presented to the Royal Society on 16 February 1704 shortly after Newton had become its president.

Although it was hugely influential, many of the ideas contained in Opticks had been expounded by Newton much earlier, either in his lectures at Cambridge in the late 1660s or in papers, such as New theory about light and colours (1672), in which he outlined his finding that white light was a composite of the various colours of the spectrum, and An hypothesis explaining the properties of light (sent a to the Royal Society in 1675 but not published until 1757), in which he outlined his corpuscular theory of light, and were well known.

At the end of Opticks Newton appended a set of sixteen ‘Queries’ or speculations for others to investigate further or as Newton put it in the preface ‘in order to a farther search be made by others’. In later editions Newton added more queries, outlining his speculations in areas of natural philosophy far beyond optics. These ‘Queries’ had a profound influence on natural philosophy throughout the eighteenth century, inspiring work in many fields, including chemistry, physiology and electricity.

Newton included two mathematical treatises at the end of Opticks, one of which, Tractatus de quadratura curvarum, contained work that Newton had done on fluxions many years before and which had previously circulated in manuscript form. His inclusion of this work can be seen as his first manoeuvrings in the battle to establish priority over Leibniz in the invention of calculus, a battle which did not truly get underway for several years.

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