An intricate image of a flying fish is one of hundreds of images now searchable online courtesy of the Royal Society, the United Kingdom’s national academy of science.
This striking wood engraving appeared in the 1686 text “Historia Piscium” or “The History of Fishes” by John Ray and Francis Willughby. Now mostly forgotten, the book was groundbreaking for its time. Unfortunately, “The History of Fishes” almost prevented another groundbreaking work from being published: Isaac Newton’s “Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica” (“Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy”).
The lavish engravings in “The History of Fishes” were so expensive to publish that they nearly bankrupted the young Royal Society, at that time only 26 years old. Short of cash, the Society had to rescind its promise to help pay for the production of Newton’s masterpiece.
Fortunately for Newton (and for science), his “Principia” caught astronomer Edmond Halley’s eye. Halley would be remembered mainly for computing the orbit of the comet that bears his name, but at the time he was a young Royal Society clerk. Halley took on the “Principia” as a personal project, raising funds (many from his own pocket) to get the work published in 1687…