Sir Isaac Newton,
• Born: 25 December 1642
• Birthplace: Woolsthorpe, Lincolnshire, England
• Death: 20 March 1727 (bladder stone)
• Best Known As: The genius who explained gravity
Isaac Newton's discoveries were so numerous and varied that many consider
him to be the father of modern science. A graduate of Trinity College,
Cambridge, Newton developed an intense interest in mathematics and the
laws of nature which ultimately led to his two most famous works: Philosophiae
Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687) and Opticks (1704). Newton helped
define the laws of gravity and planetary motion, co-founded the field
of calculus, and explained laws of light and color, among many other
discoveries. A famous story suggests Newton discovered the laws of gravity
by watching an apple fall from a tree, though there's no proof that
this is true. Newton was knighted in 1705.
Newton was the first scientist given the honor of burial in Westminster
Abbey... He is often ranked 1-2 with Albert Einstein among history's
leading physicists... Newton held the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics
at Cambridge -- a post later held by Stephen Hawking... Newton was good
friends with astronomer Edmond Halley, of Halley's Comet fame.
Newton, Sir Isaac (1642-1727), mathematician and physicist, one of the
foremost scientific intellects of all time. Born at Woolsthorpe, near
Grantham in Lincolnshire, where he attended school, he entered Cambridge
University in 1661; he was elected a Fellow of Trinity College in 1667,
and Lucasian Professor of Mathematics in 1669. He remained at the university,
lecturing in most years, until 1696. Of these Cambridge years, in which
Newton was at the height of his creative power, he singled out 1665-1666
(spent largely in Lincolnshire because of plague in Cambridge) as "the
prime of my age for invention". During two to three years of intense
mental effort he prepared Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica
(Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy) commonly known as the
Principia, although this was not published until 1687.
As a firm opponent
of the attempt by King James II to make the universities into Catholic
institutions, Newton was elected Member of Parliament for the University
of Cambridge to the Convention Parliament of 1689, and sat again in
1701-1702. Meanwhile, in 1696 he had moved to London as Warden of the
Royal Mint. He became Master of the Mint in 1699, an office he retained
to his death. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London
in 1671, and in 1703 he became President, being annually re-elected
for the rest of his life. His major work, Opticks, appeared the next
year; he was knighted in Cambridge in 1705.
As Newtonian science
became increasingly accepted on the Continent, and especially after
a general peace was restored in 1714, following the War of the Spanish
Succession, Newton became the most highly esteemed natural philosopher
in Europe. His last decades were passed in revising his major works,
polishing his studies of ancient history, and defending himself against
critics, as well as carrying out his official duties. Newton was modest,
diffident, and a man of simple tastes. He was angered by criticism or
opposition, and harboured resentment; he was harsh towards enemies but
generous to friends. In government, and at the Royal Society, he proved
an able administrator. He never married and lived modestly, but was
buried with great pomp in Westminster Abbey.
Newton has been
regarded for almost 300 years as the founding examplar of modern physical
science, his achievements in experimental investigation being as innovative
as those in mathematical research. With equal, if not greater, energy
and originality he also plunged into chemistry, the early history of
Western civilization, and theology; among his special studies was an
investigation of the form and dimensions, as described in the Bible,
of Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem.
In 1664, while still a student, Newton read recent work on optics and
light by the English physicists Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke; he also
studied both the mathematics and the physics of the French philosopher
and scientist René Descartes. He investigated the refraction
of light by a glass prism; developing over a few years a series of increasingly
elaborate, refined, and exact experiments, Newton discovered measurable,
mathematical patterns in the phenomenon of colour. He found white light
to be a mixture of infinitely varied coloured rays (manifest in the
rainbow and the spectrum), each ray definable by the angle through which
it is refracted on entering or leaving a given transparent medium. He
correlated this notion with his study of the interference colours of
thin films (for example, of oil on water, or soap bubbles), using a
simple technique of extreme acuity to measure the thickness of such
films. He held that light consisted of streams of minute particles.
From his experiments he could infer the magnitudes of the transparent
"corpuscles" forming the surfaces of bodies, which, according
to their dimensions, so interacted with white light as to reflect, selectively,
the different observed colours of those surfaces.
The roots of these
unconventional ideas were with Newton by about 1668; when first expressed
(tersely and partially) in public in 1672 and 1675, they provoked hostile
criticism, mainly because colours were thought to be modified forms
of homogeneous white light. Doubts, and Newton's rejoinders, were printed
in the learned journals. Notably, the scepticism of Christiaan Huygens
and the failure of the French physicist Edmé Mariotte to duplicate
Newton's refraction experiments in 1681 set scientists on the Continent
against him for a generation. The publication of Opticks, largely written
by 1692, was delayed by Newton until the critics were dead. The book
was still imperfect: the colours of diffraction defeated Newton. Nevertheless,
Opticks established itself, from about 1715, as a model of the interweaving
of theory with quantitative experimentation.
In mathematics too, early brilliance appeared in Newton's student notes.
He may have learnt geometry at school, though he always spoke of himself
as self-taught; certainly he advanced through studying the writings
of his compatriots William Oughtred and John Wallis, and of Descartes
and the Dutch school. Newton made contributions to all branches of mathematics
then studied, but is especially famous for his solutions to the contemporary
problems in analytical geometry of drawing tangents to curves (differentiation)
and defining areas bounded by curves (integration). Not only did Newton
discover that these problems were inverse to each other, but he discovered
general methods of resolving problems of curvature, embraced in his
"method of fluxions" and "inverse method of fluxions",
respectively equivalent to Leibniz's later differential and integral
calculus. Newton used the term "fluxion" (from Latin meaning
"flow") because he imagined a quantity "flowing"
from one magnitude to another. Fluxions were expressed algebraically,
as Leibniz's differentials were, but Newton made extensive use also
(especially in the Principia) of analogous geometrical arguments. Late
in life, Newton expressed regret for the algebraic style of recent mathematical
progress, preferring the geometrical method of the Classical Greeks,
which he regarded as clearer and more rigorous.
Newton's work on
pure mathematics was virtually hidden from all but his correspondents
until 1704, when he published, with Opticks, a tract on the quadrature
of curves (integration) and another on the classification of the cubic
curves. His Cambridge lectures, delivered from about 1673 to 1683, were
published in 1707.
A The Calculus
Priority Dispute Newton had the essence of the methods of fluxions by
1666. The first to become known, privately, to other mathematicians,
in 1668, was his method of integration by infinite series. In Paris
in 1675 Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz independently evolved the first ideas
of his differential calculus, outlined to Newton in 1677. Newton had
already described some of his mathematical discoveries to Leibniz, not
including his method of fluxions. In 1684 Leibniz published his first
paper on calculus; a small group of mathematicians took up his ideas.
In the 1690s Newton's
friends proclaimed the priority of Newton's methods of fluxions. Supporters
of Leibniz asserted that he had communicated the differential method
to Newton, although Leibniz had claimed no such thing. Newtonians then
asserted, rightly, that Leibniz had seen papers of Newton's during a
London visit in 1676; in reality, Leibniz had taken no notice of material
on fluxions. A violent dispute sprang up, part public, part private,
extended by Leibniz to attacks on Newton's theory of gravitation and
his ideas about God and creation; it was not ended even by Leibniz's
death in 1716. The dispute delayed the reception of Newtonian science
on the Continent, and dissuaded British mathematicians from sharing
the researches of Continental colleagues for a century.
IV MECHANICS AND
According to the well-known story, it was on seeing an apple fall in
his orchard at some time during 1665 or 1666 that Newton conceived that
the same force governed the motion of the Moon and the apple. He calculated
the force needed to hold the Moon in its orbit, as compared with the
force pulling an object to the ground. He also calculated the centripetal
force needed to hold a stone in a sling, and the relation between the
length of a pendulum and the time of its swing. These early explorations
were not soon exploited by Newton, though he studied astronomy and the
problems of planetary motion.
with Hooke (1679-1680) redirected Newton to the problem of the path
of a body subjected to a centrally directed force that varies as the
inverse square of the distance; he determined it to be an ellipse, so
informing Edmond Halley in August 1684. Halley's interest led Newton
to demonstrate the relationship afresh, to compose a brief tract on
mechanics, and finally to write the Principia.
Book I of the Principia
states the foundations of the science of mechanics, developing upon
them the mathematics of orbital motion round centres of force. Newton
identified gravitation as the fundamental force controlling the motions
of the celestial bodies. He never found its cause. To contemporaries
who found the idea of attractions across empty space unintelligible,
he conceded that they might prove to be caused by the impacts of unseen
Book II inaugurates
the theory of fluids: Newton solves problems of fluids in movement and
of motion through fluids. From the density of air he calculated the
speed of sound waves.
Book III shows
the law of gravitation at work in the universe: Newton demonstrates
it from the revolutions of the six known planets, including the Earth,
and their satellites. However, he could never quite perfect the difficult
theory of the Moon's motion. Comets were shown to obey the same law;
in later editions, Newton added conjectures on the possibility of their
return. He calculated the relative masses of heavenly bodies from their
gravitational forces, and the oblateness of Earth and Jupiter, already
observed. He explained tidal ebb and flow and the precession of the
equinoxes from the forces exerted by the Sun and Moon. All this was
done by exact computation.
Newton's work in
mechanics was accepted at once in Britain, and universally after half
a century. Since then it has been ranked among humanity's greatest achievements
in abstract thought. It was extended and perfected by others, notably
Pierre Simon de Laplace, without changing its basis and it survived
into the late 19th century before it began to show signs of failing.
See Quantum Theory; Relativity.
V ALCHEMY AND CHEMISTRY
Newton left a mass of manuscripts on the subjects of alchemy and chemistry,
then closely related topics. Most of these were extracts from books,
bibliographies, dictionaries, and so on, but a few are original. He
began intensive experimentation in 1669, continuing till he left Cambridge,
seeking to unravel the meaning that he hoped was hidden in alchemical
obscurity and mysticism. He sought understanding of the nature and structure
of all matter, formed from the "solid, massy, hard, impenetrable,
movable particles" that he believed God had created. Most importantly
in the "Queries" appended to "Opticks" and in the
essay "On the Nature of Acids" (1710), Newton published an
incomplete theory of chemical force, concealing his exploration of the
alchemists, which became known a century after his death.
VI HISTORICAL AND
Newton owned more books on humanistic learning than on mathematics and
science; all his life he studied them deeply. His unpublished "classical
scholia"—explanatory notes intended for use in a future edition
of the Principia—reveal his knowledge of pre-Socratic philosophy;
he read the Fathers of the Church even more deeply. Newton sought to
reconcile Greek mythology and record with the Bible, considered the
prime authority on the early history of mankind. In his work on chronology
he undertook to make Jewish and pagan dates compatible, and to fix them
absolutely from an astronomical argument about the earliest constellation
figures devised by the Greeks. He put the fall of Troy at 904 BC, about
500 years later than other scholars; this was not well received.
VII RELIGIOUS CONVICTIONS
AND PERSONALITY Newton also wrote on Judaeo-Christian prophecy, whose
decipherment was essential, he thought, to the understanding of God.
His book on the subject, which was reprinted well into the Victorian
Age, represented lifelong study. Its message was that Christianity went
astray in the 4th century AD, when the first Council of Nicaea propounded
erroneous doctrines of the nature of Christ. The full extent of Newton's
unorthodoxy was recognized only in the present century: but although
a critic of accepted Trinitarian dogmas and the Council of Nicaea, he
possessed a deep religious sense, venerated the Bible and accepted its
account of creation. In late editions of his scientific works he expressed
a strong sense of God's providential role in nature.
Newton published an edition of Geographia generalis by the German geographer
Varenius in 1672. His own letters on optics appeared in print from 1672
to 1676. Then he published nothing until the Principia (published in
Latin in 1687; revised in 1713 and 1726; and translated into English
in 1729). This was followed by Opticks in 1704; a revised edition in
Latin appeared in 1706. Posthumously published writings include The
Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended (1728), The System of the World
(1728), the first draft of Book III of the Principia, and Observations
upon the Prophecies of Daniel and the Apocalypse of St John (1733).
Newton's Life and
Work at a Glance
Updated 10 December 2004.
The following tabular summary of Newton's life and work does not pretend
to be a comprehensive biography. It simply offers a quick and easy reference
guide to the principal milestones in Newton's personal and professional
development, and correlates them with contemporary events and publications
that influenced him.
For those wanting more detailed and nuanced accounts of Newton's life
and the various aspects of his thought, there is a wealth of material
available online and in print. It would be impossible to provide an
exhaustive list of such resources, but most of the best examples are
listed on our Links page (for online material) and our Bibliography
(for books and articles in print).
Note on dates: During Newton's lifetime, two calendars were in use in
Europe: the 'Julian' or 'Old Style' in Britain and parts of Eastern
Europe, and the more accurate 'Gregorian' or 'New Style' elsewhere.
The difference between them lay in their attitude to leap years. At
Newton's birth, Gregorian dates were ten days ahead of Julian dates:
thus Newton was born on Christmas Day 1642 by the Julian calendar but
on 4 January 1643 by the Gregorian. On either 19 February/1 March 1700
or 29 February/11 March 1700 (depending on which calendar is used to
measure the gap), this discrepancy rose to eleven days, because there
was no 29 February 1700 in the Gregorian calendar. Since some reference
sources use one calendar, some the other, and some a mixture of both,
this can cause considerable confusion. In the interests of clarifying
apparent discrepancies with other sources, both options are given here
wherever a particular date is specified.
Matters are further complicated by the contemporary English habit of
regarding the year as beginning on 25 March. It is here regarded as
beginning on 1 January, but notes are added where this may lead to confusion
(for instance, the Complete Works of Joseph Mede are dated 1664 but
were in fact published in the early months of what we now call 1665).
Dates Life Times
1642 April (exact date unknown): Marriage of the elder Isaac Newton,
an illiterate but quite well-to-do yeoman farmer, to Hannah Ayscough.
Oct: Death of the elder Isaac Newton (buried 6/16 Oct.). Death of Galileo
Marriage of Princess Mary (later Mary II, then aged nine) to William
Outbreak of English Civil War (Oct.).
1642/3 25 Dec./4 Jan.: Birth of Isaac Newton in Woolsthorpe, Lincolnshire.
1645 Royalist defeat at Battle of Naseby marks the beginning of the
end of the Civil War.
1646 27 Jan./6 Feb.: Hannah Newton marries Barnabas Smith, rector of
North Witham (about a mile and a half from Woolsthorpe), and moves to
North Witham, leaving young Isaac in Woolsthorpe in the care of Hannah's
mother, Margery. Birth of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.
Birth of John Flamsteed.
1648 Peace of Westphalia ends Thirty Years War in Northern Europe.
1649 Execution of Charles I; England becomes a republic.
1650 Death of René Descartes.
1651 Publication of Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan.
1652 Publication of Elias Ashmole's alchemical verse anthology Theatrum
1653 Death of Barnabas Smith. Hannah returns to Woolsthorpe with her
three children by her second marriage, Mary (b. 1647), Benjamin (b.
1651) and Hannah (b. 1652). Oliver Cromwell appointed Lord Protector.
1654 Newton is enrolled at King's School, Grantham (about 7 miles from
Woolsthorpe). Boards with a Mr. Clark, the town apothecary, who provides
the first stimulus to his interest in chemistry. Initially regarded
as a poor scholar, he eventually rises to top of the class. Publication
of The Marrow of Alchemy by 'Eirenæus Philalethes' (i.e. George
1656 Birth of Edmond Halley.
c. 1658 Leaves school and is set to learn to manage the family estate.
Perhaps wilfully, proves thoroughly incompetent and neglectful. The
Grantham schoolmaster, Henry Stokes, and Hannah's brother, William,
persuade her to let him return to the Grantham school to be trained
for university. Apparently forms a short-lived romantic attachment to
Clark's step-daughter (according to a report of her recollections in
her old age). Death of Oliver Cromwell (24 Aug./3 Sept. 1658). Succeeded
as Protector by his son Richard.
1659-1661 Publication of Lazarus Zetzner's huge alchemical anthology
1660 Restoration of Charles II.
Foundation of the Royal Society.
Publication of Robert Boyle's New Experiments Physico-Mechanicall.
1661 Enters Trinity College, Cambridge (26 May/5 June), first as a subsizar
and then a sizar (i.e. paying his way by acting as servant for socially
superior fellow-students or for tutors). Further supports himself with
a small money-lending operation. Publication of Boyle's Sceptical Chymist.
1662 Apparently undergoes some form of religious crisis: draws up a
list of his sins before and after Whitsun that year, presumably in the
hope of charting an improvement. His conscience is still troubled by
such remembered boyhood sins as 'Stealing cherry cobs from Eduard Storer',
'Calling Derothy [sic] Rose a jade' and 'Squirting water on Thy day
[i.e. Sunday]' - but also, more ominously, 'Threatning my father and
mother Smith to burne them and the house over them' and 'Wishing death
and hoping it to some'. Establishment of the Royal Society by royal
1663 Makes friends with John Wickins, a new arrival at Cambridge, who
becomes his room-mate for the next twenty years and works as his assistant.
1664 Probably attends the mathematics lectures given by Isaac Barrow,
holder of the newly-instituted Lucasian Chair of Mathematics. Devotes
himself to private studies in mathematics and optics, largely ignoring
the official university curriculum of classics, Euclidean geometry and
Aristotelian philosophy. Begins to fill up his college notebook instead
with a series of wide-ranging scientific entries headed 'Quæstiones
quædam Philosophiæ' ('Certain Philosophical Questions').
Publication of Boyle's Experiments Touching Colours.
Birth of Nicolas Fatio de Duillier, a Swiss mathematician who is later
(c. 1689-93) to become Newton's closest friend for a time.
1665-7 Graduates BA.
Returns to Woolsthorpe for the summer of 1665. Is detained there by
the outbreak of plague in Cambridge and remains in Woolsthorpe until
March 1667, apart from a short stay in Cambridge in spring 1666 which
is cut short by a recurrence of the plague. During this period, despite
being almost entirely self-taught in mathematics and optics, he establishes
the fundamentals of what is now called the calculus (Newton calls it
'the method of series and fluxions'), setting down the basic rules of
differentiation and integration in a paper of October 1666, and demonstrates
the heterogeneity of white light through its separation by refraction.
Nearly blinds himself by conducting optical experiments on his own eyes.
The sight of a falling apple in a Woolsthorpe orchard - or so Newton
himself is said to have claimed decades later - focuses his attention
on the subject of gravity. Realises that the force required to keep
the moon in orbit round the earth (as stated by Kepler in his Third
Law) is of the same kind as that operating in terrestrial gravity. However,
Newton's theory of universal gravitation is not fully worked out for
another twenty years. 1665 Great Plague. Publication of Robert Hooke's
Micrographia and of the (posthumous) complete works of Joseph Mede (dated
1664, i.e. early 1665), whom Newton later acknowledges as the greatest
influence on his interpretation of Biblical prophecy.
1666 Great Fire of London. Publication of Boyle's Origin of Formes and
1665-7 Second Anglo-Dutch War.
1667 Made Fellow of Trinity College (22 Sept./2 Oct.). This requires
him to subscribe to the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England
(a declaration of orthodoxy with particular emphasis on the doctrine
of the Trinity), to take a vow of celibacy, and to promise to take holy
orders within seven years of receiving his MA.
1668 Awarded an MA. Publication of the Opera chymiatrica (Works of Chemical
Medicine) of Jodocus a Rhe (a.k.a. Johannes Rhenanus).
1668-9 Installs elaborate experimental apparatus in his and Wickins'
rooms, adding two furnaces for (al)chemical experiments and a copy of
Zetzner's monumental Theatrum chemicum in 1669. Constructs the first
functioning reflecting telescope (from a design by David Gregory).
1669 Writes 'De analysi per æquationes numero terminorum infinitas'
('On Analysis by Infinite Series'), another milestone on the road to
calculus. Barrow retires as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics to become
chaplain to Charles II and recommends Newton to succeed him, which he
does on 19/29 Oct. Barrow and the mathematician and publisher John Collins
urge Newton to publish his work on calculus, but he is reluctant. At
Barrow's request, Newton prepares the former's Lectiones opticæ
(Optical Lectures) for the press, despite being well aware that his
own unpublished optical discoveries are far in advance of Barrow's and
contradict many of his conclusions. Publication of Secrets Reveal'd
by 'Eirenæus Philalethes' (i.e. George Starkey), an English version
of the Introitus apertus that had appeared two years earlier. Publication
of Barrow's Lectiones opticæ.
1670 Begins delivering his Lucasian lectures (Jan.), which according
to later anecdotes are extremely poorly attended. Lectures on geometrical
optics rather than pure maths, putting forward the radical view that
the science of colours, and indeed the whole of natural philosophy,
is governed by mathematical principles.
1671 Barrow persuades Newton to allow him to demonstrate the telescope
to the Royal Society, where it causes a sensation. Newton writes De
methodis serierum et fluxionum (On the Method of Series and Fluxions),
expounding the principles of calculus, though this is not published
until 1736. Publication of John Webster's Metallographia and of Henry
More's Enchiridion metaphysicum.
1672 Elected Fellow of the Royal Society (1/11 Jan.).
Newton's 'Theory about Light and Colors' published in the Royal Society's
journal, Philosophical Transactions (30 Jan./9 Feb.). Critical reactions
from various quarters, and especially from the Society's own Curator
of Experiments, Robert Hooke, elicit furious responses from Newton and
embroil him in numerous polemical exchanges for the next four years,
during which he repeatedly declares himself unwilling to engage in any
further scientific publication or correspondence. However, he intermittently
keeps up a vicious semi-public quarrel with Hooke until the latter's
death in 1703. Outbreak of Third Anglo-Dutch War.
1673 Cold-shoulders various attempts to persuade him to re-engage with
the scientific community and concentrates harder on his still almost
totally secret (al)chemical studies. At about this date, he also begins
an intensive study of the textual history of the Bible (both in the
original and in various translations) and of the Church Fathers, which
continues to occupy him for the rest of his life and soon leads him
to conclude that the doctrine of the Trinity is a heretical error introduced
in the 4th century AD. Leibniz elected Fellow of the Royal Society.
Publication of Christian Huygens' Horologium oscillatorium (Of Pendulum
1674 End of Third Anglo-Dutch War.
1675 Visits London in spring to ask the Secretary of State, Joseph Williamson,
for a dispensation from taking holy orders, as the statutes of Trinity
require him to do as an MA of seven years' standing. This is granted
and the statutes altered for Newton's benefit. It is not clear what
grounds he argues for his exemption, though his private reasons are
almost certainly his dissent from the Church's teaching on the Trinity.
Sends the Royal Society a 'Hypothesis' concerning the causes of light
and colours. This is closely related to an alchemical essay, 'Of natures
obvious laws and processes in vegetation', written (but not disclosed)
by Newton at about the same time. Relations with Hooke worsen as the
latter thinks Newton credits himself in the 'Hypothesis' with a number
of ideas Hooke had already put forward in his Micrographia (1665). Greenwich
Observatory founded, with John Flamsteed as the first Astronomer Royal.
1676 Leibniz visits London in October and (without Newton's knowledge)
is shown a copy of Newton's 'De Analysi' by John Collins. However, Leibniz
has already independently established the fundamental principles of
calculus, though (as he later acknowledges) he learns much from Newton's
work on series expansion.
1677 Death of Isaac Barrow.
1678 Publication of Ralph Cudworth's True Intellectual System of the
Universe. Publication of Ripley Reviv'd by 'Eirenæus Philalethes'
(i.e. George Starkey).
1679 Returns to Woolsthorpe in the spring to nurse his dying mother
(buried 4/14 June). Newton remains in Woolsthorpe for most of the year
settling the family's affairs. Birth of Newton's half-niece Catherine
1679-1680 Correspondence with Hooke about the path of falling bodies
provides Newton with the key dynamic concepts of inertia and centripetal
1681 Correspondence with Flamsteed about the comets of November and
December 1680, which Flamsteed maintains are one and the same. Newton
initially disagrees but later acknowledges Flamsteed was right: this
has further important implications for Newton's understanding of gravity.
c. 1683 Wickins resigns his fellowship and leaves Cambridge (probably
to allow him to marry, which he cannot do as a Fellow). Newton invites
Humphrey Newton (no relation) to share his rooms and work as his amanuensis.
1684 August: Halley visits Newton to discuss astronomical matters, particularly
the notion of gravity. The two get on well and Halley becomes one of
Newton's staunchest supporters. Correspondence with Flamsteed about
the possibility of an attraction between Jupiter and Saturn. Leibniz
publishes an account of his calculus in the Leipzig-based journal Acta
1685 Accession of the Roman Catholic James II (27 Jan./6 Feb.).
1686 Fully formulates his theory of universal gravitation: every object
in the universe attracts and is attracted to every other object. Publication
of Edmund Dickinson's alchemical Epistola ad Theodorum Mundanum (Letter
to Theodorus Mundanus).
1687 Plays a significant role in orchestrating opposition to the King's
demand that Sidney Sussex College award an MA to a Benedictine monk,
Alban Francis, without requiring him to take the statutory oath of allegiance
to the Church of England - despite the fact that Newton, as a convinced
but secret unitarian, owes the Church of England no more allegiance
than Francis does. Newton and other delegates face examination by Judge
Jeffreys, and Vice Chancellor John Peachell is sacked, but the college
stands its ground and the degree is never conferred.
July: largely at Halley's urging and entirely at Halley's expense, publishes
Philosophiæ naturalis principia mathematica (The Mathematical
Principles of Natural Philosophy), his masterwork on mechanics, fluids
and gravity. Though few outside England are initially convinced by Newton's
theory of gravity, the book establishes his reputation throughout Europe
as at least one of the greatest mathematicians and scientific thinkers
of his day. Death of Henry More.
1688 Petition of Seven Bishops against James II's toleration of Roman
The 'Glorious Revolution': arrival from the Netherlands of the Protestant
William of Orange and his army (Nov.) and flight of James (Dec.).
1689 Elected MP for Cambridge University. Applies for provostship of
King's College, Cambridge, but (much to his chagrin) is not appointed.
Now seen as something of a superstar in English intellectual circles,
Newton acquires a devoted following of mostly younger disciples, many
of whom come to share his unorthodox theological views as well as championing
his natural philosophy. At this time or a little earlier, makes friends
with the philosopher John Locke and with the Swiss mathematician Fatio
de Duillier: his friendship with the latter is arguably the one really
close relationship of Newton's life. Terminates Humphrey Newton's service
as his amanuensis. Accession of William III and Mary II (James II's
Publication of The Cambridge Case, an anonymous account of the Sidney
Sussex affair (probably not Newton's composition though he may well
have had a hand in it).
Publication of Le triomphe hermétique (The Hermetic Triumph)
by Alexandre Toussaint de Limojon, Sieur de Didier.
1690 Writes two long letters to Locke, and a shorter supplement, concerning
'corruptions of Scripture', explicitly stating his own anti-trinitarian
convictions. Begins revising the Principia and elaborating on his conviction
that true (i.e. Newtonian) natural philosophy was known to the sages
of various pre-Christian civilisations and represented in veiled, allegorical
form in myths and in the design of ancient temples and monuments such
as Stonehenge. Maintains that all 'his' discoveries are in fact re-discoveries
of 'prisca sapientia' ('ancient wisdom'). Publication of Boyle's The
Christian Virtuoso and Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding.
1691/2 Death of Boyle (31 Dec./10 Jan. - at quarter to one in the morning,
for which reason many sources treat the date as 30 Dec./9 Jan.). His
will endows the Royal Society's Boyle Lectures in defence of religion.
1692-3 Correspondence with the mathematician Richard Bentley on the
value of natural philosophy as a proof of God's existence and a bulwark
of true religion.
Correspondence with Locke about alchemy. Locke, who is one of a team
appointed to inspect Boyle's manuscript legacy, sends Newton copies
of two alchemical recipes he finds among the papers. Bentley delivers
the first Boyle lectures (1692), drawing heavily on his reading of and
correspondence with Newton, and publishes them (1693).
1693 Invites Fatio to take rooms next to his in Cambridge, though this
plan is never realised.
Suffers a nervous breakdown (c. July/August). Writes distractedly to
Locke in September apologising for having imagined 'that you endeavoured
to embroil me wth woemen' and that 'when one told me you were sickly
... I answered twere better if you were dead'. Explains a month later
that 'when I wrote to you I had not slept an hour a night for a fortnight
together & for 5 nights together not a wink'. Has regained his composure
by the end of the year. From this point on, has little if anything more
to do with Fatio (the reasons for this rupture remain obscure).
1694 Presses Flamsteed for data on the moon's motion, which Newton still
cannot satisfactorily explain in terms of his gravitational theory.
Deeply offends Flamsteed by telling him not to waste time on his own
theoretical speculations on the subject but to concentrate on collecting
and supplying better data. Death of Mary II leaves William III as sole
1696 Visited in March by an anonymous 'adept' who reveals what he claims
is a 'menstruum' to dissolve all metals. Probably in about this year,
Newton composes (but does not publish) the essay 'Praxis', the most
substantial of his own (al)chemical compositions. However, his practical
research into the subject seems to be abandoned at about this date,
though he continues to collect books and manuscripts.
Appointed Warden of the Royal Mint (19/29 March), which is housed at
this date in the Tower of London. Leaves Cambridge on 20/30 April to
settle in London. Though the post has traditionally been treated as
a sinecure, Newton (much to the annoyance of the other Mint officers)
takes his duties very seriously indeed, waging vigorous campaigns against
the institution's endemic corruption and inefficiency.
At some point after this move, probably before 1700, Catherine Barton
(b. 1679), the daughter of Newton's half-sister Hannah (née Smith),
comes to live with him in London. Silver recoinage in England (till
1697 Publication of John Pollexfen's Of Trade, Coin and Paper Credit,
an attack on credit and paper money.
1699 Fatio publishes a work asserting Newton's priority in the discovery
of calculus and heavily implying that Leibniz stole the idea from him
(though Newton himself acknowledged in the Principia that Leibniz had
reached at least some of the same conclusions independently). Newton
later denies having had any hand in the publication.
1700 At his own request, Newton transfers from being Warden to Master
of the Mint (a nominally less prestigious but in fact more influential
and lucrative position). The appointment is made on 25 Dec. 1699/4 Jan.
1700 - a birthday present.
Leibniz responds to Fatio's criticisms in the Acta Eruditorum, and an
increasingly bitter and personal dispute erupts between Leibniz and
Newton, waged - on both sides - largely through third parties or under
cover of anonymous publication. This preoccupies both men until Leibniz's
death (and Newton until his). Exacerbated more or less wilfully by the
seconds of both parties, the argument swells to encompass attacks on
Leibniz's views on miracles and 'pre-established harmony' (later satirised
by Voltaire as the doctrine that 'all is for the best in the best of
all possible worlds') on the one hand, and Newton's theory of gravity
on the other. Second edition of Pollexfen's Of Trade, to which Newton
writes (but never publishes) an extensive rejoinder.
1701 Again elected MP for Cambridge University.
Appointment of Newton's friend and fellow unitarian Hopton Haynes to
the Mint post of weigher and teller.
Officially resigns as Lucasian Professor (Dec.), having held the post
in absentia for over five years, and is succeeded by his protégé
William Whiston. Outbreak of the War of the Spanish Succession. Act
of Settlement debars Roman Catholics from the British throne.
1702 Designs Queen Anne's Coronation Medal. Accession of Anne.
1703 Elected President of the Royal Society, a post he holds (by annual
re-election) until his death. Death of Robert Hooke.
1704 Publishes Opticks, his second masterpiece, setting out the principles
of refraction and arguing for the corpuscular nature of light.
1706 Publication of Optice, a Latin translation of the Opticks. Fatio
becomes deeply involved with a sect of controversial and much-derided
radical mystics, the 'French Prophets'. Publication of A Demonstration
of the Being and Attributes of God by Newton's protégé
1707 Fatio and other 'French Prophets' pilloried in London. Union of
England and Scotland. Silver recoinage in Scotland (to 1709) and re-organisation
of the Edinburgh Mint.
1710 Ejection of Whiston from Lucasian Professorship for his advocacy
of unitarianism (Oct.).
1712 At Leibniz's somewhat naive request, the Royal Society appoints
a committee to review the history of the calculus controversy. The committee
is selected by the Society's President - Newton - who also compiles
its report for it. Consisting principally of carefully selected extracts
from relevant scientific correspondence, with explanatory notes, the
report emphatically (and quite correctly) asserts Newton's priority,
and heavily (and quite unjustly) implies plagiarism on Leibniz's part.
Uses his authority as President of the Royal Society to compel Flamsteed,
who is still smarting from the lack of credit given him for his contributions
to the Principia, to hand over an unfinished star-chart and compilation
of astronomical observations to be completed and edited by Halley. Publication
of Samuel Clarke's Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity (in fact a work
with a distinctly anti-trinitarian flavour).
1713 Publication of the 1712 calculus report as Commercium epistolicum
... de analysi promota (Correspondence ... Relating to the Progress
Second edition of the Principia, with the acknowledgments of Leibniz
toned down and all reference to Flamsteed excised. Adds a 'General Scholium'
setting out Newton's view of the relationship between God and Creation.
The new preface by Newton's disciple Roger Cotes denounces Leibniz as
a 'miserable reptile'. Peace of Utrecht ends British involvement in
War of the Spanish Succession.
1714 Accession of George I.
1715 Devotes almost an entire issue of the Philosophical Transactions
to 'An Account of the Book entituled Commercium Epistolicum', his own
anonymous review of his own report on the calculus controversy. Flamsteed
acquires most of the copies of Halley's edition of his star-chart and
1716 Draws up a summary of his theories on ancient chronology at the
request of Princess Caroline of Wales, asking her to keep the manuscript
to herself (which she does not). Death of Leibniz.
1717 Marriage of Catherine Barton to John Conduitt.
1718 Second English edition of the Opticks.
1719 Second Latin edition of Optice. Death of Flamsteed.
1720 Newton is said to have lost £20,000 in the South Sea Bubble
according to Catherine Conduitt. South Sea Bubble. Halley succeeds Flamsteed
as Astronomer Royal.
1721 Third English edition of the Opticks.
1722 Begins to suffer from bladder stones and is increasingly forced
to delegate his duties at the Royal Society and Mint to others (in the
case of the Mint, largely to Conduitt, who eventually succeeds him as
1725 Unauthorised publication, in Paris, of Abregé de la chronologie
de M. le Chevalier Newton, a French translation of the 'Abstract of
Cronology [sic]' Newton had written in 1716, with adversely critical
commentary by the translator. Newton promptly publishes a withering
rejoinder in the Philosophical Transactions. Posthumous publication
of Flamsteed's Historia coelestis britannica (British History of the
Heavens), his own completion of the work he had been forced to surrender
unfinished to Halley.
1726 Third edition of the Principia.
1727 Presides over his last Royal Society meeting on 19 Feb./2 March.
Shortly afterward takes to his bed, suffering from a new bladder stone.
Dies, having refused the last rites, on 20/31 March.
Sir Isaac Newton
(25 December 1642 – 20 March 1727 by the Julian calendar in use
in England at the time; or 4 January, 1643 – 31 March 1727 by
the Gregorian calendar) was an English physicist, mathematician, astronomer,
philosopher, and alchemist who wrote the Philosophiae Naturalis Principia
Mathematica (published 5 July 16871), where he described universal gravitation
and, via his laws of motion, laid the groundwork for classical mechanics.
Newton also shares credit with Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz for the development
of differential calculus. While they both discovered calculus nearly
contemporaneously, their work was not a collaboration.
Newton was the first to promulgate a set of natural laws that could
govern both terrestrial motion and celestial motion. He is associated
with the scientific revolution and the advancement of heliocentrism.
Newton is also credited with providing mathematical substantiation for
Kepler's laws of planetary motion. He would expand these laws by arguing
that orbits (such as those of comets) were not only elliptic, but could
also be hyperbolic and parabolic. He is also notable for his arguments
that light was composed of particles (see wave-particle duality). He
was the first to realise that the spectrum of colours observed when
white light passed through a prism was inherent in the white light and
not added by the prism as Roger Bacon had claimed in the 13th century.
Newton also developed a law of cooling, describing the rate of cooling
of objects when exposed to air; the binomial theorem in its entirety;
and the principles of conservation of momentum and angular momentum.
Finally, he studied the speed of sound in air, and voiced a theory of
the origin of stars.
The following is
a brief biography of Newton's early life. For more in-depth information,
see Isaac Newton's early life and achievements.
Newton was born in Woolsthorpe-by-Colsterworth, a hamlet in the county
of Lincolnshire.Newton was premature and no one expected him to live.
His mother also said that his body at that time can even fit inside
a quart mug. His father had died three months before Newton's birth.
When Newton was two years of age, his mother went to live with her new
husband, leaving her son in the care of his grandmother.
Newton began his
schooling in the village schools and was later sent to Grantham Grammar
School where he became the top boy in the school. At Grantham he lodged
with the local apothecary, William Clarke and eventually became engaged
to the apothecary's stepdaughter, Anne Storey, before he went off to
Cambridge University at the age of 19. As Newton became engrossed in
his studies, the romance cooled and Miss Storey married someone else.
It is said he kept a warm memory of this love, but Newton had no other
recorded 'sweethearts' and never married.  (http://scidiv.bcc.ctc.edu/Math/Newton.html)
Engraving after Enoch Seeman's 1726 portrait of Newton
Newton was educated at Grantham Grammar School. In 1661 he joined Trinity
College, Cambridge, where his uncle William Ayscough had studied. At
that time the college's teachings were based on those of Aristotle,
but Newton preferred to read the more advanced ideas of modern philosophers
such as Descartes, Galileo, Copernicus and Kepler. In 1665 he discovered
the binomial theorem and began to develop a mathematical theory that
would later become calculus. Soon after Newton had obtained his degree
in 1665, the University closed down as a precaution against the Great
Plague. For the next two years Newton worked at home on calculus, optics
Tradition has it that Newton was sitting under an apple tree when an
apple fell on his head, and this made him understand that earthly and
celestial gravitation are the same. A contemporary writer, William Stukeley,
recorded in his Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton's Life a conversation with
Newton in Kensington on 15 April 1726, in which Newton recalled "when
formerly, the notion of gravitation came into his mind. It was occasioned
by the fall of an apple, as he sat in contemplative mood. Why should
that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground, thought he
to himself. Why should it not go sideways or upwards, but constantly
to the earth's centre." In similar terms, Voltaire wrote in his
Essay on Epic Poetry (1727), "Sir Isaac Newton walking in his gardens,
had the first thought of his system of gravitation, upon seeing an apple
falling from a tree." This is an exaggeration of Newton's own tale
about sitting by the window of his home (Woolsthorpe Manor) and watching
an apple fall from a tree. It is now generally considered that this
story was invented by him in his later life, to illustrate how he drew
inspiration from everyday events.
Newton became a fellow of Trinity College in 1667. In the same year
he circulated his findings in De Analysi per Aequationes Numeri Terminorum
Infinitas (On Analysis by Infinite Series), and later in De methodis
serierum et fluxionum (On the Methods of Series and Fluxions), whose
title gave the name to his "method of fluxions".
Newton and Leibniz developed the theory of calculus independently and
used different notations. Although Newton had worked out his own method
before Leibniz, the latter's notation and "Differential Method"
were superior, and were generally adopted throughout the English-speaking
world. (Curiously, in Germany the Newtonian notation is more popular.)
Though Newton belongs among the brightest scientists of his era, the
last twenty-five years of his life were marred by a bitter dispute with
Leibniz, whom he accused of plagiarism.