Newton, Einstein & More: Explore the History of Science and Technology

Launch Slideshow

From the “Polio” Nobel Prize to an autograph letter on Charles Darwin’s doubts about the existence of God, the History of Science and Technology auction on 12 December boasts a diverse line-up of books, manuscripts and scientific and technological artefacts, spanning the 16th to 20th centuries. While Sotheby’s has always held a strong presence in this area, this marks our first annual sale dedicated entirely to this immensely rich subject matter, with subjects ranging from astronomy, space exploration and medicine to physics, mathematics and technology. Click ahead for a selection of exciting highlights, and visit our New York galleries for the auction preview beginning on 7 December.

History of Science and Technology
12 December | New York

Newton, Einstein & More: Explore the History of Science and Technology

  • Enigma M4. A fully operational four-rotor ("M4") Kriegsmarine Enigma Cipher Machine. Berlin-Wilmersdorf, Germany, Heimsoeth und Rinke, 1944. Estimate $350,000–500,000.
    A very fine and fully operational example of the famous German four-rotor ("m4") Kriegsmarine Enigma cipher machine. The most rare and desirable of all Enigmas, the m4 was one of the hardest to decrypt. Very few m4 machines survived the war, and to find one that is complete and in such pristine, fully operational condition is rare indeed. 

  • Enigma I. A fully operational early three-rotor Enigma I cipher machine. Berlin, Heimsoeth und Rinke, early 1930s. Estimate $120,000–180,000.
    A very fine, fully operational early three-rotor Enigma I cipher machine. The Enigma I, often called the "Heeres" Enigma, was used by the German Heer (Army), the Luftwaffe (Air Force), and later, by the Kriegsmarine (Navy) before the introduction of the "M4" 4-rotor machine. The low serial number 1024 of the present machine indicates that it was manufactured in the early 1930s, making it among the very first Enigmas delivered to the German military as they built up their forces in violation of the Treaty of Versailles.

  • René Descartes. Discours de la méthode pour bien conduire sa raison, & chercher la verité dans les sciences. Plus La dioptrique. Les météores. Et la géométrie. Qui sont des essais de cete méthode. Leiden: Jan Maire, 1637. Estimate $80,000–120,000.
    First edition of a fundamental work for both philosophy and scientific methodology. Descartes’s first and most celebrated publication is the basis for his far-reaching influence as a philosopher and scientist, and features his famous statement, cogito ergo sum [I think, therefore I am].

  • Chesley Bonestell. "Saturn, Viewed from Titan, One of Its Satellites." A mid 1950s study for the Titan panorama. Estimate $100,000–150,000.
    This striking panorama study was created for the Griffith Observatory planetarium and incorporates Bonestell's most iconic work "Saturn as Seen from Titan," often referred to as "the painting that launched a thousand careers," and probably the single most famous astronomical painting ever created. It's seen here in its two-tier frame, displaying the four panels that comprise the 360° panorama in two segments. We invite you to visit our catalogue to see the panorama assembled for reference.

  • Charles Darwin. Autograph letter signed, to James Grant. Down Beckenham, March 11, 1878. Estimate $40,000–60,000.
    An autograph letter on Darwin’s doubts as to the existence of God. Darwin in a detailed and thoughtful response to a curious young reader named James Grant, who, on 6 March, 1878, asked: "...I would... be much obliged to you if you would, in two or three words, simply tell me if your doctrine of the descent of man destroys the evidence of the existence of a God looked at through nature’s phenomena." Darwin's response, in part: “The strongest argument for the existence of God, as it seems to me, is the instinct or intuition which we all (as I suppose) feel that there must have been an intelligent beginner of the Universe; but then comes the doubt and difficulty whether such intuitions are trustworthy...”  Letters that deal so directly with the theological implications of Darwin's theory of natural selection are exceptionally rare.

  • The “Polio” Nobel Prize. The 1954 Nobel Prize Medal for Physiology or Medicine Awarded to Frederick C. Robbins for his Life-Saving Work Leading to the Development of the Polio Vaccine, with the Accompanying Calligraphic Diploma and Related Materials. Estimate $200,000–300,000.
    The Nobel Prize awarded for one of the greatest achievements of the modern era, and the most profoundly important discovery in the history of virology; Robbins, Enders and Weller's breakthrough "discovery of the ability of poliomyelitis viruses to grow in cultures of various types of tissue" paved the way for vaccines developed by Jonas Salk & Albert Sabin, saving countless children from lifetimes of pain and disability. Together with Robbins’ Nobel Prize Diploma, and Nobel Prize yearbook, Les Prix Nobel en 1954 (Stockholm: Imprimerie Royale, 1955).

  • Isaac Newton. Autograph Manuscript in Latin, ca. 1670. Estimate $40,000–60,000.
    Very rare unpublished manuscript written at the beginning of Isaac Newton’s chemical researches. Here, Newton has composed a list of chemical authors he has either worked with or is intending to research, together with some citations of their works. Almost all of Newton's manuscripts are housed in institutions, and manuscripts relating to his scientific researches are especially rare in private hands.

  • Isaac Newton – [Albert Einstein & Roman Vishniac]. Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica. London: Apud Guil. & Joh. Innys, Regiæ Societatis typographos, 1726. Estimate $8,000–12,000.
    A superb association copy of Newton's landmark book – with the bookplates of both Albert Einstein and Roman Vishniac. We can trace a direct line from Newtownian physics to special and then general relativity, marking this association copy as a fascinating object related to our developing understanding of the universe from the eighteenth century to present. Moving from physics to photography – Roman Vishniac was a Russian-American photographer who famously photographed Einstein in his study in Princeton in 1942.

  • Albert Einstein. Typed letter signed and note signed to Herbert Kondo, Princeton, New Jersey, 11 August, 1952. Estimate $10,000–15,000.
    An excellent letter regarding Einstein's views on philosophy as applied to physics, the objective role of space and time, the impact of the theories of relativity and quantum theory and the principle of causality, referencing fellow physicists Galileo, Newton, Maxwell and Faraday, as well as philosophers Whitehead and Berkeley.

  • Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace. Autograph letter signed, ca. 1839. Estimate $18,000–25,000.
    In this autograph letter Ada Lovelace, creator of the first computer code, writes to her friend, celebrated English journalist Albany Fonblanque, in full: "Have you forgotten your promise to come here? The weather seems now very tolerable (& sometimes really delightful). — Babbage is here. I hope you will come before he goes." The Babbage in question is the famed English polymath Charles Babbage, who referred to her as the "Enchantress of Numbers." The pair formed a May-December friendship when she was just 18 and he was 42, and corresponded at length regarding Babbage’s Analytical Engine, to which she made foundational computational contributions. Lovelace would go on to speculate on further possible applications of the Engine (it “might act upon other things besides number”), earning her yet another nickname – “Prophet of the Computer Age.”

  • Alfred North Whitehead. Autograph Mathematical Manuscript Notebooks, unsigned and undated, but circa 1900. Estimate $80,000–120,000.
    The only known surviving mathematical manuscript by Alfred North Whitehead, a giant of 20th century mathematical logic. Manuscript material by Whitehead has never come to public auction, and in fact, any manuscript material by him is of the utmost rarity, with even institutional holdings being very minimal. In the present manuscript, possibly written in early preparation for his magnus opus Principia Mathematica, Whitehead takes a deep look at several issues in mathematics, primarily in regards to bilinear forms, homogeneous functions, and quadratic forms, as discussed in the work of mathematicians Karl Weierstrass and Ferdinand Georg Frobenius, noting the work of others including George Salmon and August Leopold Crelle.

  • Kurt Gödel. "Die Vollständigkeit der Axiome des logischen Funktionenkalküls." Offprint from: Aus den Monatsheften für Mathematik und Physik, Vol 37, part 1. Leipzig: Akademische Verlagsgesellschaft, 1930. AND: "Über formal unentscheidbare Sätze der Principia Mathematica und verwandter Systeme I." Offprint from: Aus den Monatsheften für Mathematik und Physik, Vol 38, part 1. Leipzig: Akademische Verlagsgesellschaft, 1931. Estimate $80,000–120,000.
    First edition, author's presentation offprint issues of among the most remarkable scientific achievements of the 20th century - Gödel's famed incompleteness and completeness theorems. With these theorems, Gödel demonstrated the inherent limitations of provability in formal axiomatic theories, which Alan Turing would later connect to unresolvable algorithms in computer science, together laying the groundwork for the development of modern computing. 

  • The First Electric Sound Synthesizer. A Helmholtz Sound Synthesizer, manufactured in Chemnitz by Max Kohl after the design by Hermann von Helmholtz, circa 1905. Estimate $25,000–35,000.
    A magnificent example of Hermann von Helmholtz's sound synthesizer, an electronically driven device used for artificially creating musical sounds of different timbre, and the vowels of the human voice. Specimens of this device are extremely rare, with only one similar but smaller apparatus located in a US institution that we know of – we have not seen any others as large or finely made as this one.

  • [Theremin]. Teletouch Theremin Possibly built by Léon Theremin, circa 1937-1938. Estimate $20,000–30,000.
    A fully restored and operational theremin, possibly built by the Soviet inventor Léon Theremin himself, or under his instruction at the Teletouch Company. One of approximately ten known prototypes and soloist instruments built at his New York workshop between 1928–1938, before the inventory abruptly returned to the Soviet Union in 1938.


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