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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

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

mathematical diagrams.

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 planets?

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

Stoke Rocheford.

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

its green.

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

following letter:--

"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




Who by a vigor of mind, almost supernatural,

First demonstrated

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


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

and nieces.

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