Watch the video story of how Secrets Reveal’d traveled from Sir Isaac Newton’s library to the University of Wisconsin Special Collections.
Listen to the DHRN (Digital Humanities Research Network) interview where Kyle talks about his experiences researching Secrets Reveal’d and making the videos for this project.
Written by Kyle Neill
Video 1 – Introduction to Isaac Newton’s Secrets Reveal’d
Location: Madison, WI
Within the vaults of Special Collections at the University of Wisconsin’s Memorial Library sits a book entitled Secrets Reveal’d, a book previously owned by someone you may have heard of: Sir Isaac Newton. First published in 1645, Secrets Reveal’d was written under the pen name Eirenaeus Philalethes. This Philalethes was an American Colonialist alchemist named George Starkey. Isaac Newton’s copy of Secrets Reveal’d, published in 1669, shows evidence of heavy use, with notes from Newton himself on most pages. Frequently, Newton’s notes were comprised of edits to Starkey’s word choice, including the full title which reads: Secrets Reveal’d; or, An Open Entrance to the Shut Palace of the King: Containing the Greatest Treasure in Chymistry Never Yet So Plainly Discovered. Newton suggested an alternate title: Secrets Reveal’d: The Entrance Opened into the Hidden Palace of the King.
Follow this book as its path is traced through history!
Video 2 – Introducing Isaac Newton
Location: Trinity College, Cambridge
Let’s meet the man who would come to own Secrets Reveal’d! Isaac Newton was a bright student, admitted to Trinity College at Cambridge on the recommendation of his uncle, who had also studied there. As a fellow at Trinity, Newton received numerous hefty allowances from his mother in addition to his own income. One such allowance of £30 received on February 12, 1667/68 according to his own log book, equates to about $5,600 today. And it seems he drank quite well with that money, recording £1, or about $185, spent at the tavern between a couple visits. He also recorded losing 15 shillings, or about $140, while gambling. But not all of his money was spent on such pleasures, he bought books for his growing library as well, purchasing several costing between one and seven shillings, or between $9-$65.
Throughout his life, Newton amassed a library of 2100 volumes. While this may seem substantial today, for a scientist of his time the number was a bit lacking. However, unlike most learned men of his day, Newton had little interest in simply collecting books as he did in reading them. His frequently dog-eared, annotated, and well-thumbed books are evidence of this. While many book lovers deplore this kind of treatment, it clearly displays his attitude towards books: they were tools of learning to be used as convenient, and to their potential destruction.
Video 3 – Newton’s Death and Lack of a Will
Location: Kensington, London
In March of 1727, Isaac Newton died having never made a will. This was not out of ignorance of the legal system—for he was executor to his mother’s will—but a purposeful resistance to having a will drawn up. The reason for this may be because he lived to eighty-four with virtually unimpaired health and therefore saw no immediate need for a will.
Newton’s favorite niece Catherine Conduitt–who had lived with him for a time–was the only individual of Newton’s relatives who expressed interest in acquiring his library. For reasons unknown, her husband John Conduitt was not allowed to purchase the books on her behalf, and they were sold to John Huggins, the warden of Fleet Prison and Newton’s neighbor. Huggins purchased the library for £300–£30 more than booksellers’ estimation of the library’s total worth.
Huggins drew up an inventory of his purchased books, today preserved in the British Library and known as the Huggins List. The Huggins List was created within six weeks of Newton’s death and is comprised of 969 titles in 1442 volumes, with additional items grouped together with no details. However, within this list Secrets Reveal’d was listed as one of the five “Books that has notes of Sir Is. Newton’s” that were specifically withheld from the sale. Instead, Secrets Reveal’d was passed to Catherine Conduitt.
Video 4 – Musgrave Catalog, Portsmouth, Sotheby’s Sale, Francis Edwards
Location: Hampshire, England
The next change in the ownership of Isaac Newton’s library occurred around 1767 upon the death of Huggins. His collection was sold to Rev. Dr. James Musgrave, his friend and relative by marriage. While most of the collection went to Musgrave, Secrets Reveal’d had been withheld from the original sale to Huggins and therefore was not passed to Musgrave nor listed on the Musgrave Catalog. Rather, it, along with two other books annotated by Newton, came into the possession of the Conduitts at the time of the sale to Huggins.
In 1740 the Conduitts’ collection came into the possession of the Portsmouth family following the marriage of Conduitt’s daughter, also named Catherine, to John Wallop, first Earl of Portsmouth and Viscount Lymington. Secrets Reveal’d appeared in A Catalogue of the Portsmouth Collection of Books and Papers written by or belonging to Sir Isaac Newton in 1888.
The book remained in their possession until emerging again in the public view in 1936 at the Sotheby’s Sale of the Portsmouth family’s remaining holdings of Newton’s papers, listed as lot 121, ‘containing corrections & additions in the hand of Newton on almost every page, some
completely filling the margins.’ Here it was bought by the antiquarian book dealer Francis Edwards for £88. It appeared in their 1936 catalog for £200, though it did not sell. It next appeared in their 1938 catalog for £150.
Video 5 – Denis Duveen and the University of Wisconsin
Location: Paris, New York, and Madison
In 1938, Secrets Reveal’d was bought from Francis Edwards by Denis I. Duveen. Duveen, a London native, was a chemist and entrepreneur. He began collecting books on alchemy and early chemistry while a student at Oxford, and continued during his studies at the Collège de France and his career as a chemist, moving his collection with him to Paris. During World War II, Duveen packed his book collection into cases and sent them to a friend’s country estate in Bazoche-sur-le-Betz for safe keeping, 100 miles south of Paris. Although the farm was requisitioned by the Germans, the collection was recovered intact after the war, having been found hidden in an outhouse. In 1949, Duveen immigrated to the United States where he founded the Duveen Soap Corporation in Long Island City, New York. By this time, he had amassed a collection of over 3,000 volumes. Wanting to narrow his collecting scope from all of chemistry to items related specifically to Antoine Lavoisier, for whom Duveen took a great interest in during his studies in France, he sold most of the collection to the University of Wisconsin in 1951.
Secrets Reveal’d is today held in the aptly named Duveen Collection at the University of Wisconsin’s Memorial Library Special Collections. Its pages have been digitized and you too can read the handwritten notes of Sir Isaac Newton online at UW Digital Collections!