The Costs of Publishing Principia Mathematica (guest post by Landon D. C. Elkind)

The following is a guest post* by Landon D. C. Elkind, a PhD student in philosophy at the University of Iowa. At the Bertrand Russell Society‘s 2016 annual meeting it was noted that Russell and Whitehead each paid to publish their jointly authored Principia Mathematica, and the discussion turned to how much, in today’s dollars, they laid out.

What follows is Mr. Elkind’s accounting of an answer to that question. As he said in an email to me, “Russell and Whitehead must truly have believed in the value of their decade of work to pay so much of their money to publish PM. A. D. Irvine, in his SEP article ‘Principia Mathematica‘, suggests that every research library in the world has a copy of it. One wonders how events would have played out if they had been more devoted to money than they in fact were.”

Russell Whitehead Principia

The Costs of Publishing Principia Mathematica
by Landon D. C. Elkind

Some folks at the Bertrand Russell Society 2016 Annual Meeting at St. John Fisher College wanted to know how much, in today’s terms, Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell paid to publish their co-authored Principia Mathematica. This is a somewhat complicated question—it is really a bundle of questions—so the length of this essay cannot be much helped.

Each co-author paid £50 to publish Principia. So our initial question is, “What is the 2015 value, in dollars, of £50 in 1910?”

The Bank of England’s inflation calculator sets £50 in 1910 at a 2015 value of £5,312.50. According to an exchange rate website – whose data may not be precise, but these calculations are all rough – the average exchange rate in 2015 was $1.528162 for £1.

So the cost, in 2015 dollars, to each co-author of publishing Principia was $8,118.36. Their collective cost, in 2015 dollars, of publishing Principia, then, was $16,236.72.

In contrast, I paid $57.61, or £37.70, for all three volumes of Principia (a cheap facsimile edition, admittedly). The Bank of England’s inflation calculator puts my 1910 cost of buying all three volumes at £0.35 pounds – in 1910 terms, that is roughly 7 shillings.
However, it is slightly misleading to compare what I paid for one set to the cost of printing multiple copies of the whole set. It is also somewhat distorting to only count the cost to the co-authors. The Royal Society also subsidized the cost of publishing Principia, as I. Grattan-Guinness documented in his 1975 (cited here). And the publishers assumed the remaining projected loss as a risk. So another question is, “How much did the co-authors, the Royal Society, and the publishers pay to print each copy of all three volumes of Principia?”

The publishers projected a loss of £600 in publishing Principia. The publishers risked £300 of that projected loss, the Royal Society assumed £200 upfront, and the co-authors took on the remaining £100 upfront. The publishers produced 750 copies of Volume I. Due to low sales, only 500 copies of Volumes II and III were printed, but let us ignore that.

Ostensibly, the co-authors paid for Volume I whereas the Royal Society paid for Volumes II and III. Dividing $8,118.36 by 750, both Whitehead and Russell paid about $10.83 to print each copy of Volume I, or $21.65 jointly. Thanks to the subsidies, that amount covers the cost to the co-authors of printing all three volumes. So to publish a set of all three volumes, both co-authors paid $10.83, or $21.65 jointly. Spreading that cost over three volumes, the co-authors separately paid, for each volume of Principia, $3.61, or $7.22 jointly.

Tripling these amounts gives us the cost to the authors plus the Royal Society. Ignoring that fewer copies of Volumes II and III were printed, the Royal Society paid $21.65 for one copy of Volumes II and III. So the total cost to the co-authors plus the Royal Society for a full set comes to $64.94. This is $7.33 more than what I paid for a cheap facsimile edition.

Doubling these amount gives us the cost to all parties – the co-authors, the Royal Society, and the publishers. For one of 750 copies of all three volumes, the total cost was $129.88, or $43.29 for each volume. Note that this is actually the net cost, or the full cost minus what the publishers thought they would recoup in sales.

Another question is, “How much did it cost all the parties to print 750 copies of Principia?” We get this by multiplying the cost of each set of three volumes by 750. Thus:

  • The co-authors individually paid $8,118.36, or $16,236.72 jointly, to publish Principia.
  • The Royal Society paid $32,473.44 to publish Principia.
  • The publishers covered a projected loss of $48,710.16 in publishing Principia.

Therefore, the parties combined to put up $97,420.32, or £63,750, to publish Principia.

Yet another question is, “How does the price in 1910 compare with today’s price?” Volumes I, II, and III were priced at 25 shillings (£1.25), 30 shillings (£1.5), and 21 shillings (£1.05), respectively. The price in 2015 dollars (pounds), then, is as follows:

  • You would have paid $202.96 (£132.81) for Volume I.
  • You would have paid $243.54 (£159.37) for Volume II.
  • You would have paid $170.48 (£111.56) for Volume III.

For the whole set, you would have paid $616.98 (£403.74). Checking Cambridge University Press’ website, you will notice that their price is about twice that – $1,225.00!

It bears mentioning that all such calculations are fraught with other considerations about how to best measure monetary value across time. A variety of other answers to this question can be found in greater detail at Measuring Worth.

Thanks to Greg Stoutenburg for his helpful comments on an earlier draft. And if you found the end of this post, then thanks for reading!

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7 years ago

And now rare book dealers are asking over $100,000 for the first-edition of all 3 volumes:

Reply to  Finn
7 years ago

It last sold in auction for 11750 USD (significantly less than the price it fetched the previous time it was sold in auction) so I wish Sophia Rare Books the best in finding someone with so much money, so little sense, and a love of philosophy.

7 years ago

I wonder how much Frege had to pay to publish the two volumes of Grundgesetze der Arithmetik?