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Newton watermark project led by IU professor could help date early books more accurately

Feb 22, 2021

A team of American researchers, supervised by an Indiana University professor and including two IU alumni, is working with international partners on a project that could help scholars more accurately date manuscripts and early books.

Newton manuscript
A watermark is displayed on a Newton manuscript at the Science History Institute.Courtesy of the Science History Institute

Watermarks have been used to date the paper on which they are found since before the 13th century. But capturing watermarks that are covered with text and identifying them is a complicated, often imprecise process. While there are “dictionaries” that researchers can reference to help identify the different markings, there are many variations of each type.

Distinguished Professor Bill Newman, in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science and Medicine in IU Bloomington’s College of Arts and Sciences, is supervising a project that aims to improve the process of identifying watermarks. Newman is the general editor of the Chymistry of Isaac Newton, a 17-year-old project at IU that has been editing Newton’s alchemical writings.

Newman and the principal investigators on the project will use some of Newton’s manuscripts as a test case for capturing and identifying watermarks. The research is supported by a highly competitive New Directions for Digital Scholarship in Cultural Institutions grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The British Arts and Humanities Council awarded an identical grant to the team’s international partners at the University of Cambridge.

“What we hope to do with this grant is to fund a consortium of American, British and French institutions to develop software for matching watermarks automatically and to develop better ways to capture them,” Newman said.

The project could help researchers get a better sense of the relationship between Newton’s alchemical writings and his more mainstream scientific theories.

“One would like to be able to date precisely when he was developing one idea in an area, and another idea in another area,” Newman said.

Both of the project’s principal investigators are IU alumni who were previously involved with the Chymistry of Isaac Newton project. Their current roles give them access to some of Newton’s manuscripts that will be photographed and digitized to create the electronic watermark database.

James Voelkel is curator of rare books and manuscripts at the Science History Institute’s Othmer Library of Chemical History, which has five Newton manuscripts that will be included in the watermark project. He said the breadth of what the team is trying to accomplish is remarkable.

“Watermarks are very difficult to image, and modern technology will help make the process much more efficient,” Voelkel said. “In terms of dating things more accurately, this has a lot of potential.”

The results will have applications far beyond Newton’s alchemical manuscripts. Joel Klein is the Molina Curator for the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences at the Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens. The Huntington has the third largest collection of Newton’s writings, many on loan from Babson College. Klein said the Huntington has long been on the cutting edge of watermark analysis.

“This is really kind of the bread and butter of what we do as stewards of documentary heritage,” Klein said. “The research has the potential to add another important tool in our tool belt as scholars interested in the material history of science – but beyond that, anything that was done on paper that has a watermark, which is a huge amount of material from the hand-press era.”

The first year of the three-year grant will focus on much of the computational work necessary to build a watermark database.


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Barbara Brosher

Interim Executive Director of Media Relations & Editorial Content

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