The first publication of a computer program
The lineage of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak’s Apple-1 has a number of potential starting points. One of them is undoubtedly the Analytical Engine, a mechanical general-purpose computer devised by the English mathematician Charles Babbage in 1837.
Due to funding difficulties and conflicts with his chief engineer, Babbage was never able to construct the Engine (and in fact the first general-purpose computer was not built until the 1940s), but in 1840 he travelled to Turin to give a lecture on the machine to a group of Italian scientists.
One of those present, the future Italian prime minister Luigi Federico Menabrea, wrote up the lecture in a volume offered in our online sale, On the Shoulders of Giants: Making the Modern World (16-23 May). It is the first published description of Babbage’s Engine — and also, remarkably, the first ever publication of a computer program.
Theory of evolution
Among the books that have changed the world, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859) undoubtedly has pride of place. Ironically, it was not the book that Darwin intended to publish: he had been working on a massive 250,000-word treatise entitled Natural Selection since the voyage of the Beagle in 1836, but was forced to rush out On the Origin of Species — an abstract, or summary, of his great theory — after receiving a letter from Alfred Russell Wallace in June 1858, informing Darwin that he intended to publish on natural selection himself.
Ultimately, Natural Selection was never to see the light of day, and the only part of his ‘big book’ to be completed by Darwin was the The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication, published in 1875. The presentation copy shown above has eleven revisions in the hands of Darwin’s son, Francis, who worked as his amanuensis at this time.
The general theory of relativity
By the 1920s, Albert Einstein was probably the most famous scientist the world had ever known: consequently, letters and photographs of him from the last three decades of his life survive in relatively large numbers. By contrast, remarkably few survive from the crucial years between 1905 and 1916, when in a series of dazzling papers he effectively rewrote the laws of the universe.
The culmination of that work is in some ways represented by the letter shown above, written on 18 March 1916, in which Einstein writes to the editor of the influential journal Annalen der Physik enclosing the final, comprehensive paper describing the general theory of relativity, the most important — and some say the most beautiful — scientific theory of the 20th century.
Ultimately, Einstein was to accept (with something like good grace) the burden of being revered as a man with the answer to everything, as the remarkable letter of condolence shown above demonstrates. The seed of that fame, however, was sowed on that day in 1916.
The Big Bang
Stephen Hawking transformed the public understanding of science — especially of theoretical physics — through a series of brilliant popular works, putting him second only to Albert Einstein in the ranks of the famous scientists of the 20th century.
In 1968 Hawking was just 26, and although he had only completed his doctoral thesis two years previously, he was already at the height of his powers. The letter shown below, written to his close friend and fellow physicist Charles Misner, goes to the heart of his work on space-time singularities. Two years later, together with Roger Penrose, he was to demonstrate that if the universe observed Einstein’s general theory of relativity, it must have begun as a singularity — the Big Bang.
Hawking’s handwriting here shows the effects of the amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) which had first been diagnosed five years previously, and had already confined him to a wheelchair. Within a few years, he had ceased to write letters by hand, and as a result they have become highly sought after by collectors. This is the first autograph letter by Hawking to have been offered at international auction.
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Richard P. Feynman
The invention of quantum computing
If Richard Feynman is best known today for playing the bongo drums, breaking safes at the Manhattan Project, and his scientific deconstruction of pick-up techniques in Las Vegas bars, it is probably his own fault. His reminiscences became a best-selling book, Surely You’re Joking, which emerged from taped conversations with his friend and drum-partner Ralph Leighton.
Nevertheless, Feynman was one of the great scientific minds of the 20th century, with contributions ranging from the invention of quantum computing and nanotechnology to solving the Challenger space shuttle disaster.
One of his most remarkable inventions, as shown above, was the Feynman diagram: a dazzlingly simple visual representation of the behaviour of subatomic particles, which until then had been expressed only in dense clusters of mathematical equations.
Feynman was deeply reluctant to hand out autographs, and this is the first time that a signed Feynman diagram has been offered for sale at international auction.