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William Romaine Newbold papers


Held at: University of Pennsylvania: Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts [Contact Us]3420 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104-6206

This is a finding aid. It is a description of archival material held at the University of Pennsylvania: Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts. Unless otherwise noted, the materials described below are physically available in their reading room, and not digitally available through the web.

Overview and metadata sections

William Romaine Newbold was born in Wilmington, Delaware on November 20, 1865 to William Allibone Newbold and Martha Smith Baily. Newbold attended the Cheltenham Military Academy in suburban Philadelphia and then enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania in the fall of 1884 as a sophomore with the Class of 1887. Newbold was an honors student during each of his undergraduate years and quickly distinguished himself as an academic talent, graduating with prizes in both Latin and Philosophy and he even taught an informal class on Hebrew in only his second semester on campus. He was also a member of the Senior Book Committee and the Philosophical Seminar.

After earning a Bachelor of Arts degree, Newbold returned to the Cheltenham Military Academy where he taught Latin while simultaneously working toward a doctoral degree at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1889, Newbold left the military academy to join the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania as an instructor in Latin. The following year, Newbold was named lecturer in philosophy, and at the same time, he maintained his position as instructor in Latin. He earned his Ph.D. in 1891 with a dissertation entitled, "Prolegomena to a Theory of Belief." After earning his Ph.D., Newbold temporarily left the University to study in Germany at the University of Berlin. Newbold returned to the United States and the University of Pennsylvania in 1892 and resumed his positions as an instructor in Latin and a lecturer in philosophy. In 1894, he was promoted to Assistant Professor of Latin. Two years later, in 1896, he was named the Dean of the Graduate School. During his tenure as dean, Newbold worked to elevate the status and prestige of the Graduate School by raising the admissions standards and improving administrative aspects. In 1903, Newbold was promoted to Professor of Philosophy and in 1907 he was named the Adam Seybert Professor of Intellectual and Moral Philosophy. He was named an honorary member of the Philomathean Society during that body's centennial celebration in 1913. During World War I, Newbold taught the political and historical causes of the war to the Reserve Officers Training Corps. The University honored Newbold with an honorary Doctor of Laws degree (LL.D) in 1921.

Newbold's passions throughout his lifetime were all things ancient and mysterious. In the late 1890s, he became interested in the psychology of religion and researched the topic to great extent, writing a series of papers on hypnosis, hallucinations, telepathy, and trances and how they related to religious experiences. He was a member of the Society for Psychical Research and served as the psychology editor of the American Naturalist for the year 1895 to 1896. In the early 20th century, he turned his attention to ancient Greek philosophy. He translated many works by Aristotle and Plotinus, but, for unknown reasons, never submitted them for publication. He did however publish a well-received paper on the philosopher Philolaus in 1905.

Following World War I, Newbold turned his interests towards early Christian theology. In 1920, he delivered a series of lectures on Valentinian Gnosticism in Philadelphia at the Bohlen Foundation Lectureship, an annual series of lectures on Christian themes delivered at the Church of the Holy Trinity. Newbold's body of knowledge on early Christian theology became so great that, at one point in the 1920s, the Episcopal Theological Seminary of New York offered him a position as a chair of ecclesiastical history. Though the offer was considered a great honor for a layperson, Newbold chose to remain at the University of Pennsylvania.

Newbold also had a great interest is puzzles, codes, and cryptography. This interest led to the last major undertaking of his professional life. He worked to decipher a famous coded text, commonly referred to as the Voynich Manuscript. He believed it had been written by Roger Bacon, a thirteenth century English monk, scientist, astrologer, and inventor. According to Newbold's complex system for deciphering the code, Bacon had made numerous scientific discoveries which no one else would "rediscover" for centuries. Newbold died before he could decipher the whole manuscript, but the partial decipherment was published posthumously as The Cipher of Roger Bacon (1928). In the years immediately following Newbold's death, his version of the meaning of the code in the Voynich Manuscript was seen as the truth. Several years later, however, other experts began to look at Newbold's method with a critical eye. They correctly noted that his system was faulty as it was based on a number of unproven hypotheses. Newbold's interpretation of the Voynich Manuscript was eventually completely disregarded, with some experts even questioning if Francis Bacon was the author of the manuscript. None of these questions regarding the validity of his decipherment surfaced during his lifetime.

William Romaine Newbold died on September 8, 1926. A memorial service was held for him in College Hall on the University of Pennsylvania campus. He was survived by his wife Ethel Sprague Kent Packard, whom he had married in 1896.

Biography taken in its entirety from the University of Pennsylvania Archives.

This collection represents two bodies of work created by William Newbold, containing both an original manuscript draft as well as color plates used for a later publication.

The Greek Theories of Sound and Consonance is an original unpublished manuscript (1907) which includes edits and corrections made by Newbold. In his preface, Newbold states that the work aims to "bring together…all existing material of importance to the development of Greek physical theories of sound and consonance…" Covering works by Pythagoras, Archytas, Plato, Xenocrates, Aristotle, and Theophratus, Newbold also offers commentary on various issues regarding early acoustics and music scholarship.

Written in an unknown cryptic system, the Voynich manuscript has been scrutinized by many of the world's foremost cryptographers. Acquired by Polish book dealer Wilfred Voynich in 1912, the codex quickly drew the interest of William Newbold, who was one of the first to claim to have deciphered the enigmatic manuscript. Published in 1928, The Cipher of Roger Bacon claims that a series of markings— which are only visible under a magnifying glass—depicted ancient Greek word abbreviations. This shorthand could then be rearranged to form intelligible Latin words which were then the basis of the hidden content, which claims that Roger Bacon had created the codex. This collection contains a listing of plates used in the printing of The Cipher of Bacon,by William Newbold, as well as color plates from various pages of the original Voynich manuscript.

The Greek Theories of Sound and Consonance was given to Professor Isaac Hurik for publication from William Newbold shortly after completion. Upon rejection, the manuscript was given the University of Pennsylvania Department of Philosophy who donated it to the university library in 1947.

University of Pennsylvania: Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts
Finding Aid Author
Alexis Morris
Finding Aid Date
2015 May 20
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This collection is open for research use.

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Copyright restrictions may exist. For most library holdings, the Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania do not hold copyright. It is the responsibility of the requester to seek permission from the holder of the copyright to reproduce material from the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts.

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Original manuscript cover, 1907.
Box 1 Folder 1
Letter of provenance (1947) and manuscript, 1907.
Box 1 Folder 2-4
Correspondence regarding publication, 1928-1946.
Box 1 Folder 18

List of plates from Newbold's The Cipher of Roger Bacon, undated.
Box 1 Folder 5
Pages 1, 3, 25, 28, undated.
Box 1 Folder 6
Pages 33, 43, 48, 49, undated.
Box 1 Folder 7
Pages 46, 47, 49, 50, 51, undated.
Box 1 Folder 8
Pages 52-55, 58, undated.
Box 1 Folder 9
Pages 66-68, undated.
Box 1 Folder 10
Page 69, undated.
Box 1 Folder 11
Pages 70, 71, undated.
Box 1 Folder 12
Pages 73, 75, undated.
Box 1 Folder 13
Pages 77-79, undated.
Box 1 Folder 14
Pages 80-82, undated.
Box 1 Folder 15
Pages 83, 84, undated.
Box 1 Folder 16
Pages 85-87, 89, undated.
Box 1 Folder 17

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