Science History Institute Receives NEH/AHRC Grant

The New Directions for Digital Scholarship in Cultural Institutions award—given jointly by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council—will fund a research project on Isaac Newton's alchemical manuscripts.

The Science History Institute is proud to announce that it is the co-recipient of a New Directions for Digital Scholarship in Cultural Institutions grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the United Kingdom’s Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). James R. Voelkel, curator of rare books and manuscripts in the Institute’s Othmer Library of Chemical History, will serve as a co-director of the research project titled “Digital Approaches to the Capture and Analysis of Watermarks Using the Manuscripts of Isaac Newton as a Test Case.”

The newly created award is shared with Indiana University’s (IU) Chymistry of Isaac Newton project and the Huntington Library in the US, and Cambridge University and the National Archives in the UK. As lead organization of the international collaboration, IU’s William R. Newman will serve as the project’s director.

Research is aimed at developing digital humanities tools, image recognition, and machine learning to aid in the identification of watermarks. Minute differences in watermarks have the potential to help date otherwise undated manuscripts by matching them to identical ones in approximately single years of output from individual paper mills. In the test case, the attempt will be made to use watermarks from Newton’s manuscripts at the National Archives dating from his tenure as Master of the Mint to help date some of his almost wholly undated alchemical papers. Image processing tools and artificial intelligence will be developed to extract watermark images from page images, and to compare and match similar watermarks. The Science History Institute will contribute images of the Othmer Library’s Newton manuscripts and Voelkel’s expertise as part of the research team.

About the National Endowment for the Humanities
Created in 1965 as an independent federal agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) supports research and learning in history, literature, philosophy, and other areas of the humanities by funding selected, peer-reviewed proposals from around the nation. NEH is proud to join with the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) to present the first round of NEH/AHRC New Directions for Digital Scholarship in Cultural Institutions grants that will support teams of international researchers in developing new methods of sharing culture and heritage with global audiences, opening new research frontiers, and advancing collections-based research methods for the 21st century.


Above: Detail of Isaac Newton’s Copy of the Preparation of the [Sophick] Mercury for the [Philosophers’] Stone, ca. 1670s. Science History Institute