Sir Isaac Newton
In the same year, 1642, in which Galileo, sad and blind, went away from
the earth, Sir Isaac Newton came to make his home upon it.
He was born December 25, the only child of Isaac Newton and Hannah
Ayscough. The father died at thirty-seven, a few months after his
marriage, and the young wife, after the birth of her child, was both
father and mother to the helpless infant. He was so frail that there
seemed little probability that he could live to manhood, or even
boyhood. Naturally, between mother and son there grew a most ardent
affection, which neither time nor death could change.
The manor-house of Woolsthorpe in Colsterworth, Lincoln county, was a
two-story stone building, owned for a century by the Newton family, and
bringing a limited income from the little farm in connection with it.
Here Isaac passed his childhood, going to the schools near by, and
learning to read, write, and cipher.
At twelve, he was sent to the public school at Grantham, where he showed
little taste for study, and managed easily to stand at the foot of his
class. When he was the last in the lowermost form but one, the boy next
above him, as they were going to school, gave Isaac a kick, which
occasioned severe pain. Stirred with wrath, Isaac challenged the other
boy to a fight. For this purpose, they repaired to a neighboring
churchyard, where young Newton, though much the smaller and weaker of
the two, pounded his antagonist till he was glad to come to any terms of
He resolved now that this boy should no longer stand above him in
scholarship, and with a new ambition and energy born of his insult, he
soon rose to the highest place in the school. It was not idleness,
probably, that made Newton a poor scholar, but his mind was absorbed
with making saws, hammers, hatchets, and other tools.
He made a windmill and placed it on the top of his home, the wind
putting it in motion. When there was no wind, a novel expedient was
resorted to. A mouse, which was called "the miller," was trained to turn
the windmill by walking on a tread wheel, with some corn just beyond his
reach! All through life, he was exceedingly kind to animals, and could
never tolerate shooting or hunting for sport. He objected to one of his
nephews, when praised in his presence, "that he loved killing of birds,"
and this was sufficient to win his disesteem. It is probable, therefore,
that the little mouse was kindly cared for by the young experimenter.
He also made a water clock, about four feet high, with a dial-plate at
the top, with figures of the hours. The index was turned by a piece of
wood, which either fell or rose by water dropping. Every morning the lad
supplied his clock with the proper amount of water.
Besides these, he invented a four-wheeled carriage, which was moved with
a handle by the person who sat in it. For his boy friends, he made
lanterns of "crimpled paper" with a candle inside, to light them to
school in the dark winter mornings, and paper kites of the best form and
proportion. In dark nights he tied the lanterns to the tails of his
kites, and ignorant people sometimes mistook them for comets!
On the manor-house at Woolsthorpe he carved sun-dials, which were
visible a century later. He was a "sober, silent, and thinking lad," who
was always hammering in his room, or making drawings with his pen and
pencil, designing with charcoal on his walls, birds, animals, ships, and
Mrs. Newton, the mother, had married again, after a singular courtship.
"Mr. Smith, a neighboring clergyman, who had a very good estate, had
lived a bachelor till he was pretty old, and, one of his parishioners
advising him to marry, he said he did not know where to meet with a good
wife. The man answered, 'The widow Newton is an extraordinary good
woman.' 'But,' said Mr. Smith, 'how do I know she will have me, and I
don't care to ask and be denied; but if you will go and ask her, I will
pay you for your day's work.'
"He went accordingly. Her answer was, she would be advised by her
brother Ayscough, upon which Mr. Smith sent the same person to Mr.
Ayscough on the same errand, who, upon consulting with his sister,
treated with Mr. Smith, who gave her son Isaac a parcel of land, one of
the terms insisted upon by the widow if she married him."
Though for a time she was thus removed from Isaac, leaving him with his
grandmother, on the death of Rev. Mr. Smith, she returned to the
When Isaac had reached his fifteenth year, his mother, not seeming to
think of any profession for her mechanical son, decided to make of him a
farmer and grazier. On Saturdays, the market day at Grantham, she would
send him with grain and other agricultural produce, in the care of an
old and trusty servant. The boy had no taste for selling produce, and
would hasten to the attic in the house of Mr. Clark, an apothecary, with
whom he had boarded while at school, and there spend his hours in
reading old books, till the time came for him to go home, the servant
meantime having sold the vegetables.
Sometimes, however, the lad would not go as far as Grantham, but,
seating himself beside a hedge along the road, would read some favorite
author till the servant returned. When his mother sent him to watch the
cattle, they enjoyed a neighbor's corn-field, while he enjoyed a book or
whittled out water-wheels. It did not seem intentional disobedience
toward a mother of whom he was very fond, but complete absorption in
some other pursuit.
When he was sixteen he was greatly interested in finding the proper form
of a body which would offer the least resistance when moving in a fluid.
In a severe storm, to test the force of the gale, he jumped first in the
direction in which the wind blew, and then in opposition to the wind,
and after measuring the length of the leap in both directions, and
comparing it with the length to which he could jump in a perfectly calm
day, he was enabled to compute the force of the storm.
His mother soon found that her boy would not make a successful farmer,
and sent him back to school at Grantham, to prepare for Trinity College,
Cambridge, which he entered when he was nineteen.
It is probable that the time spent at Grantham was a happy time; for
young Newton there met and, it is said, loved Miss Storey, sister of Dr.
Storey, a physician near Colsterworth, and daughter of the apothecary's
second wife. She was two or three years younger than Newton, a girl of
attractive face and unusual talents. As his income as a Fellow was
small, after leaving college, they did not marry, though his interest in
her continued unabated through life. Though she was twice married, he
never paid a visit to Woolsthorpe without going to see her, and
liberally relieved her from little pecuniary embarrassments, when his
own circumstances had become easy. How the world loves constancy; an
affection which knows no change! That he would have been happier in
those quiet years of study, even in his poverty, had he married, is
probable; but that the world gained by his undivided devotion to
science, is equally probable.
On July 8, 1661, Newton entered college, and soon, through the study of
Descartes' Geometry, showed his skill in higher mathematics. And now
began an almost unexampled development of mind.
At twenty-two, he was studying a comet so closely, and the circles and
halo round the moon, that he impaired his health by sitting up late at
night. In 1665, May 20, when he was twenty-three, he committed to
writing his first discovery of fluxions--"the infinitely small increase
or decrease of a variable or flowing quantity in a certain infinitely
small and constant period of time."
The same year, when the college had been dismissed on account of the
plague in Cambridge, Newton made his immortal discovery of the
Attraction of Gravitation. While sitting alone in his garden at
Woolsthorpe, and observing an apple fall to the ground, it occurred to
him that as the same power by which the apple fell was not sensibly
diminished at the summits of the loftiest spires, nor on the tops of
the highest mountains, it might extend to the moon, about which he had
been studying, and retain her in her orbit. If to the moon, why not to
The tree from which the apple fell was so much decayed in 1820, that it
was cut down, but the wood was carefully preserved by Mr. Turnor of
In the beginning of the following year, 1666, when Newton was
twenty-four, he purchased a prism, in order to make some experiments on
Descartes' theory of colors. He made a hole in his window shutter,
darkened the room, and admitted a ray of the sunlight. On the opposite
wall he saw the solar or prismatic spectrum, an elongated image of the
sun, about five times as long as it was broad, and consisting of seven
different colors; red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet.
White light was thus discovered to be of a compound nature; a mixture of
all the colors. He said, "Whiteness is the usual color of light; for
light is a confused aggregate of rays endued with all sorts of colors,
as they are promiscuously darted from the various parts of luminous
bodies." If any one color predominates, the light will incline to that
color, as the yellow flame of a candle. Heretofore, there had been all
sorts of conjectures about the nature and origin of colors. Descartes
believed them to be a modification of light, depending on the direct or
rotary motion of its particles. But Newton showed by many experiments
that color is a property of light, or innate in light itself. We speak
of a thing as red because it reflects red, and absorbs all the other
colors. The green leaf stops or absorbs the red, blue, and violet rays
of the white light, and reflects and transmits only those which compose
He also found that the red rays are refracted or turned out of their
course least of all the colors, and violet most, thereby discovering the
different refrangibility of the rays of light; "a discovery which has
had the most extensive applications to every branch of science, and,
what is very rare in the history of inventions, one to which no other
person has made the slightest claim."
His beautiful experiments with rings resulted in his Scale of Colors, of
great value in optical research.
In 1668, when Newton was twenty-six, he constructed a small reflecting
telescope, and soon a larger one, which he sent to the Royal Society;
and was made a member of that body, in 1671. Two years previously he had
been appointed to the Lucasian professorship of mathematics at
He was now, at twenty-seven, spoken of as a man of "unparalleled
genius." He had discovered the compound nature of white light, the
attraction of gravity, fluxions, and made the first reflecting telescope
ever directed toward the heavens, though one had been invented
previously, by James Gregory, of Aberdeen. The boy who had thought of a
mouse to turn his windmill had thought out some of the sublimest things
in nature, and was henceforward to rank as one of the few masterminds of
science. Newton's doctrine of colors met with the most bitter
opposition. At last, he became so tired of the controversy, that he
wrote Leibnitz, "I was so persecuted with discussions arising out of my
theory of light, that I blamed my own imprudence for parting with so
substantial a blessing as my quiet to run after a shadow." To another he
wrote, "I see I have made myself a slave to philosophy; but if I get
free of Mr. Linus's business, I will resolutely bid adieu to it
eternally, excepting what I do for my private satisfaction, or leave to
come out after me; for I see a man must either resolve to put out
nothing new, or to become a slave to defend it."
Newton was also troubled pecuniarily at this time, and asked to be
excused from the weekly payments to the Royal Society, thereby resigning
his membership. He even meditated the study of law, as his income was so
limited. Strange that so many of the great things of this life are
wrought out by those who are in sorrow or privation.
But amid all the opposition to his discoveries and his poverty, the
unparalleled devotion to study was continued. When he was weary of other
branches, he said "he refreshed himself with history and chronology."
Years afterward he published the "Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms
amended, to which is prefixed a short chronicle, from the first memory
of things in Europe, to the Conquest of Persia, by Alexander the
Great." Says a gentleman who was with him for years, "I never knew him
to take any recreation or pastime, either in riding out to take the air,
walking, boating, or any other exercise whatever, thinking all hours
lost that were not spent in his studies, to which he kept so close that
he seldom left his chamber except at term time, when he read in the
schools, as being Lucasianus Professor, where so few went to hear him,
and fewer that understood him, that oftentimes he did in a manner, for
want of hearers, read to the walls....
"So intent, so serious upon his studies that he ate very sparingly, nay,
ofttimes he has forgot to eat at all, so that, going into his chamber, I
have found his mess untouched, of which when I have reminded him he
would reply, 'Have I?' and then making to the table, would eat a bit or
two standing, for I cannot say I ever saw him sit at table by himself.
At some seldom entertainments the masters of colleges were chiefly his
"He very rarely went to bed till two or three of the clock, sometimes
not till five or six, lying about four or five hours, especially at
spring and fall of the leaf, at which times he used to employ about six
weeks in his elaboratory, the fire scarcely going out either night or
day, he sitting up one night, and I another, till he had finished his
chemical experiments, in the performances of which he was the most
accurate, strict, exact...."
When his most intense studies were carried on, "he learned to go to bed
at twelve, finding by experience that if he exceeded that hour but a
little, it did him more harm in his health than a whole day's study."
"He very rarely went to dine in the hall, except on some public days,
and then if he has not been minded, would go very carelessly, with shoes
down at heels, stockings untied, surplice on, and his head scarcely
combed.... At some seldom times when he designed to dine in the hall, he
would turn to the left hand and go out into the street, when making a
stop when he found his mistake, would hastily turn back, and then
sometimes, instead of going into the hall, would return to his chamber
again.... In his chamber he walked so very much that you might have
thought him to be educated at Athens, among the Aristotelian sect."
So absent-minded was he, the story is told of him, that going home to
Colsterworth, he led his horse up a hill. When he designed to remount,
the animal had slipped the bridle and gone away unperceived, though
Newton held the bridle in his hand all the time. He would often sit down
on his bedside after he rose, and remain there for hours without
dressing, so completely absorbed was he in his thought. How few in all
this world have been so devoted to science! And yet how many expect
success without this devotion!
The same gentleman writes of Newton, "His carriage was very meek,
sedate, and humble, never seemingly angry, of profound thought, his
countenance mild, pleasant, and comely. I cannot say I ever saw him
laugh but once."
In 1687, when Newton was forty-five, his Philosophiae Naturalis
Principia Mathematica was published. "The Principia consists of three
books. The First Book, besides the definition and axioms, or laws of
motion, with which it begins, consists of fourteen sections, in the
first of which the author explains the method of prime and ultimate
ratios used in his investigations, and which is similar to the method of
fluxions. The other sections treat of centripetal forces, and motions in
fixed and movable orbits.
"The Second Book consists of nine sections, and treats of bodies moving
in resisting media, or oscillating as pendulums.
"The Third Book consists of five sections, on the Causes of the System
of the World, on the Quantity of Lunar Errors, on the Quantity of the
Tides, on the Precession of the Equinoxes, and on Comets."
The great principle of the Principia is universal gravitation, "That
every particle of matter in the universe is attracted by or gravitates
to every other particle of matter, with a force inversely proportional
to the squares of their distances." By the laws of gravity, Newton was
enabled to calculate the quantity of matter in the sun, and in all the
planets, and even to determine their density, results which Adam Smith
said "were above the reach of human reason and experience." He
ascertained that the weight of the same body would be twenty-three
times greater at the surface of the sun than at the surface of the
earth, and that the density of the earth was four times greater than
that of the sun. He found the true figure of the earth; he explained the
phenomena of the tides.
Of the "Principia," Sir David Brewster says, in his able life of Sir
Isaac Newton, it is "a work which will be memorable not only in the
annals of one science or of one country, but which will form an epoch in
the history of the world, and will ever be regarded as the brightest
page in the records of human reason,--a work, may we not add, which
would be read with delight in every planet of our system,--in every
system of the universe. What a glorious privilege was it to have been
the author of the 'Principia'!
"There was but one earth upon whose form, and tides, and movements, the
philosopher could exercise his genius,--one moon whose perturbations and
inequalities and actions he could study,--one sun whose controlling
force and apparent motions he could calculate and determine,--one system
of planets whose mutual disturbances could tax his highest reason,--one
system of comets whose eccentric paths he could explore and
rectify,--and one universe of stars to whose binary and multiple
combinations he could extend the law of terrestrial gravity.
"To have been the chosen sage summoned to the study of that earth, these
systems, and that universe, the favored lawgiver to worlds unnumbered,
the high priest in the temple of boundless space,--was a privilege that
could be granted but one member of the human family;--and to have
executed the last was an achievement which, in its magnitude, can be
measured only by the infinite in space, and in the duration of its
triumphs by the infinite in time. That sage,--that lawgiver,--that high
priest was Newton."
The "Principia" created the greatest interest throughout Europe, but met
with violent opposition. While Laplace said it would take "pre-eminence
above all the other productions of human genius," the majority could not
believe that great planets were suspended in empty space, and retained
in their orbits by an invisible power in the sun.
When Newton presented copies to the heads of colleges, some of them, Dr.
Babington of Trinity among the number, said, "they might study seven
years before they understood anything of it."
In 1687, Newton's method of fluxions was first published, twenty years
after its invention, and then because the friends of Leibnitz, the
author of the "Differential Calculus," claimed priority of discovery.
The quarrel aroused the scientific world, embittered the silent
mathematician, and impaired his health.
In 1689, when he was forty-seven, he was chosen member of parliament,
and represented Cambridge University in the House of Commons for
thirteen months. He took no active part in the debates, but was of
course respected for his wonderful mind.
This same year, his beloved mother died. Anxiously he had watched
through whole nights by her bedside, seeking in all ways to keep her
from leaving him alone in the world.
He was now nearly fifty. His life had been laborious, with an
insufficient income. His friends, John Locke among the number, tried to
obtain various positions for him, but failed. They recommended him for
provost of King's College, but the position could not be obtained
because he had not taken priest's orders.
Seemingly unappreciated, worn with his incessant brain work, his
appetite failing, and unable to sleep, with neither mother nor wife to
comfort him, the sensitive organization of the great man became
overstrained, and mind and body were unfitted for work. It is stated
that his ill health was in part consequent upon the burning of some
manuscripts on optics, by a lighted candle on the table among his
When he was fifty-three, the long hard road of poverty turned into a
highway of plenty, through the influence of a friend. Charles Montague,
an associate of Newton at the university and also in parliament, though
nineteen years his junior,--intellectual affinities are uninfluenced by
age,--had been made Commissioner of the Treasury, then Privy Councillor,
then Chancellor of the Exchequer, and later still, Baron of Halifax.
Lord Halifax appointed Newton to be Warden of the Mint, and then Master,
with an income of between six thousand and seven thousand five hundred
dollars annually, which position he held for the remainder of his life.
His home in London, where he kept six servants, with his brilliant
niece, Miss Catherine Barton, for his companion, became a place of rest
and comfort to the tired philosopher. Lord Halifax was a great admirer
of Newton's niece, Miss Catherine Barton, to whom he left, at his death,
a beautiful home and twenty-five thousand dollars, "as a token of the
sincere love, affection, and esteem I have long had for her person, and
as a small recompense for the pleasure and happiness I have had in her
The days of privation were over, and Newton had earned this rest and
prosperity. Great people often came to dine with him. At one of his
dinners, Newton proposed to drink, not to the health of kings and
princes, but to all honest persons, to whatever country they belonged.
"We are all friends," he added, "because we unanimously aim at the only
object worthy of man, which is the knowledge of truth. We are also of
the same religion, because, leading a simple life, we conform ourselves
to what is right, and we endeavor sincerely to give to the Supreme Being
that worship which, according to our feeble lights, we are persuaded
will please him most."
Other honors now come to Newton. In 1703, he was elected President of
the Royal Society, and was annually reelected during the remaining
twenty-five years of his life. On April 16, 1705, when he was
sixty-three, Queen Anne conferred the honor of knighthood upon her most
illustrious subject, Sir Isaac Newton, before a distinguished company at
Cambridge University. In 1704, the year previous, his great work on
optics had been published, written over twenty years before.
About this time, it seems that the great philosopher would have liked to
marry Lady Norris, the widow of Sir William Norris, Baronet of Speke,
and Member of Parliament. Sent to Delhi as ambassador to the Great
Mogul, he died in 1702, between Mauritius and St. Helena, on his
homeward passage. He was the third husband to Lady Norris, and Sir
Isaac, now over sixty, desired to be the fourth, as appears from the
"Madam,--Your ladyship's great grief at the loss of Sir William
shows that if he had returned safe home, your ladyship could have
been glad to have lived still with a husband, and therefore your
aversion at present from marrying again can proceed from nothing
else than the memory of him whom you have lost. To be always
thinking on the dead, is to live a melancholy life among
sepulchres, and how much grief is an enemy to your health, is very
manifest by the sickness it brought when you received the first
news of your widowhood. And can your ladyship resolve to spend
the rest of your days in grief and sickness?
"Can you resolve to wear a widow's habit perpetually,--a habit
which is less acceptable to company, a habit which will be always
putting you in mind of your lost husband, and thereby promote you
grief and indisposition till you leave it off? The proper remedy
for all these mischiefs is a new husband, and whether your
ladyship should admit of a proper remedy for such maladies, is a
question which I hope will not need much time to consider of.
"Whether your ladyship should go constantly in the melancholy
dress of a widow, or flourish once more among the ladies; whether
you should spend the rest of your days cheerfully or in sadness,
in health or in sickness, are questions which need not much
consideration to decide them. Besides that your ladyship will be
better able to live according to your quality by the assistance of
a husband than upon your own estate alone; and, therefore, since
your ladyship likes the person proposed, I doubt not but in a
little time to have notice of your ladyship's inclinations to
marry, at least, that you will give him leave to discourse with
you about it.
"I am, madam, your ladyship's most humble and most obedient
If Lady Norris "liked the person proposed," as Sir Isaac imagined, a
marriage was not the result. It is just possible that he was like
Leibnitz, who proposed to a lady when he was fifty. The lady asked for
time to take the matter into consideration, and as Leibnitz thus
obtained leisure to consider the matter again, he was never married.
For thirteen years Sir Isaac lived on Jermyn Street, London; then moved
to Chelsea, a place dear to those who love George Eliot or admire
Carlyle; and then to Martin Street, near Leicester Fields.
In his latter years he wrote much on theological subjects, especially to
prove the existence of a Deity. When he was eighty-three he published a
third edition of the "Principia." At eighty-five he read manuscript
without spectacles. He reasoned as acutely as ever, his memory alone
On March 2, 1727, he presided at a meeting of the Royal Society. He was
taken ill on the following day, and, although a great sufferer for
several days, never uttered a complaint. He died on Monday, March 20,
and his body was laid in the Jerusalem Chamber, and thence conveyed to
Westminster Abbey for burial. The pall was supported by the Lord High
Chancellor and several Dukes and Earls.
On the front of his monument are sculptured youths, bearing in their
hands emblematic designs of Newton's principal discoveries. One carries
a prism, another a reflecting telescope, a third is weighing the sun and
planets with a steelyard, a fourth is employed about a furnace, and two
others are loaded with money newly coined. The monument bears this
SIR ISAAC NEWTON, KNIGHT,
Who by a vigor of mind, almost supernatural,
The motions and figures of the Planets,
The Paths of the Comets, and the
Tides of the Ocean.
He diligently investigated
The different refrangibilities of the Rays of Light,
And the properties of the Colors to which
they give rise.
An Assiduous, Sagacious, and Faithful Interpreter
of Nature, Antiquity, and the Holy Scriptures,
He asserted in his Philosophy the Majesty of
God, and exhibited in his Conduct the
simplicity of the Gospel.
Let Mortals rejoice that there has existed
such and so great
AN ORNAMENT OF THE HUMAN RACE.
Born 25 Dec., 1642; Died 20 March, 1727.
A beautiful full-length, white marble statue of Sir Isaac was erected in
the ante-chapel of Trinity College, where he had done his wonderful
work, when scarcely more than a boy.
While he gave generously during his life, he said, "they who give
nothing till they die, never give at all,"--he left a personal estate of
one hundred and sixty thousand dollars, to be divided among his nephews
The world honored him at last, and has through all the years. Bishop
Burnet said, "Newton had the whitest soul he ever knew." His habits
were of the best. When asked to take snuff or tobacco, he declined,
saying, "he would make no necessities to himself."
He was modest to the last, saying, "that whatever service he had done
the public was not owing to any extraordinary sagacity, but solely to
industry and patient thought." He said, a short time before his death:
"I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to
have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself
in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than
ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before