Christmas Trilogy 2012 Part I: Did Isaac really victimise Stephen?

Isaac Newton was not a nice man. When he was holding court in a London coffee house dispensing wisdom and his mathematical manuscripts to his acolytes he was probably friendly and magnanimous. Also, when he was chatting over breakfast with his housekeeper niece the society beauty, Catherine Barton, of whom he was very fond he was probably very charming. However when it came to defending his mathematical and philosophical theories against his scientific rivals he had the manners of a rabid wolverine on steroids. His intellectual wars with Robert Hooke, Gottfried Leibniz and John Flamsteed have become the stuff of history of science legends known, at least in outline, even to those only mildly interested in the subject. Frank Manuel in his psychological study of Newton described it thus. Newton regarded the natural world as his garden and it was his privilege and God given duty to uncover its secrets. Others who dared to do so were poachers infringing on his private property. However was Stephen Gray really one of his victims? David H. Clarke and Stephen P. H. Clarke (henceforth referred to as C2) thought so and wrote a whole book about it with the provocative title Newton’s Tyranny: The Suppressed Scientific Discoveries of Stephen Gray and John Flamsteed. The average reader at this point is probably thinking who the hell is Stephen Gray? Stephen Gray is one of the little people in the history of science; an apparently self-taught amateur investigator of nature who made a highly significant contribution to the history of electricity in the early eighteenth century. Before I go into more detail I want to take a look at C2 and their general abilities as historians.

David H. Clarke was apparently a director of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and Stephen P. H. Clarke his son was, in 2000 when the book first appeared, a Cambridge University student. The book was written in a style that is readable contains a large number of simple historical errors which make at least this reader wary of the historical qualifications of the authors. At one point C2 list those who ruled England during Newton’s lifetime. After dealing with the expulsion of James II and the succeeding reigns of William and Mary and Anne they come to George I who is described as, “a very distant relative of the former Stuart monarchs”.  Given that George, like both Mary and Anne, was a direct great grand child of James I, I find this statement rather strange and possibly indicative of laziness in research. Having failed on English royal history C2 try their hand at university history without much more success. They tell the reader that, “Cambridge and Oxford were the two great English medieval universities, and they have remained at the forefront of intellectual achievements ever since”. The fortunes of all universities go up and down over the years and in fact Cambridge University was at a deep point in its fortunes when Newton was Lucasian Professor. Central to Newton’s dispute with Flamsteed was Flamsteed’s star catalogue so one could assume that C2 would get the history of star catalogues right however on the subject of Tycho’s star catalogue they display serious deficits. They write, “Tycho died before the publication of his results, but his pupil Johannes Kepler published them in 1627”.  Ignoring for a moment the fact that Kepler was not a pupil of Tycho it should be noted that whereas he calculated and published the planetary tables based on Tycho’s star catalogue, the catalogue itself was published by Tycho while he was still alive. On the same theme we discover that, “In Volume III Flamsteed wanted to present the actual catalogue, giving the positions of three thousand stars with accuracy dramatically better than had been reported in any previous catalogue. Since the catalogue of Tycho Brahe had contained just three hundred stars, Flamsteed’s catalogue would represent a major advance in human understanding”. I think the noble Dane might be a little piqued by C2’s description of his life’s work. Tycho’s catalogue contained the position of one thousand stars, 777 of which were the result of his own observations and the rest fudged together out of Ptolemaeus’ catalogue shortly before publication.

As well as getting things wrong C2 actually stoop to making things up. During Newton’s Presidency the Royal Society moved out of Gresham College into their own premises in Crane Court. C2 attribute the move to Newton’s hatred of Robert Hooke:

Such was Newton’s hatred of Hooke that within weeks of taking over the presidency, Newton started making plans to move the society away from Hooke’s beloved Gresham College to new premises. […] He wanted to remove any obvious association of the society with the memory of his late enemy.

This is complete rubbish. Gresham College, established in the fifteenth century, was an old building and no longer in the best condition. The Council of the College wished to demolish the premises and to build a new modern building. Given the constitution of Gresham College this would require a parliamentary bill. The Council drafted such a bill in 1701 but Hooke who was still alive and lived in the college managed to block its passage. The Gresham Council then issued the Royal Society with an eviction order and Newton and Sloane fought a rear-guard action until the Society could finally move into their own building in 1710. I could go on but I think that it should be clear by now that C2 are rather sloppy historians. Let’s return to Stephen Gray.

Born in 1666 in Canterbury, baptised on the 26th December, Stephen Gray was the son of a dyer who in his turn also became a dyer. Nothing is known about his education or how or why he became interested in investigating nature. His early interests were fairly diverse and at some point he took up contact with the Royal Society through Henry Hunt a minor functionary who also came from Canterbury. At some point he began to correspond directly with Hans Sloane the Secretary of the Society who published some of Gray’s communications in the Philosophical Transactions. Gray also developed an interest in astronomy and began to correspond with John Flamsteed, the Astronomer Royal, about 1696; a correspondence that continued with interruptions up till Flamsteed’s death in 1719. In 1707 Gray became involved as an assistant in Roger Cotes’ ill fated plans to build an observatory at Trinity College Cambridge. Whilst in Cambridge Gray read in the Philosophical Transactions reports of Francis Hauksbee’s electrical experiments demonstrated at the Royal Society, a series of experiments kicked off by the demonstration I described in my post last week. These are experiments on static electricity generated by rubbing a glass tube, the more sophisticated version of charging up a nylon comb by rubbing it and picking up bits of paper. Fascinated by the reports Gray began to copy and extend the experiments. In 1708 he sent a letter to Hans Sloane describing his efforts and reporting his discoveries. For some reason Sloane did not publish this communication and Gray’s new results appeared in later publications of Hauksbee’s without attribution. Enter C2 and their accusation against Isaac Newton.

C2 claim that Newton personally blocked the publication of Gray’s missive and construct a chain of evidence to support their claim. Are they right? I really don’t think so. The chain of evidence starts with Newton’s appointment as President of the Royal Society in 1704 and proceeds over his feud with Flamsteed over the publication of his star catalogue that broke out shortly thereafter. C2 claim is rather simple, Newton was the all-powerful President of the Royal Society who hated John Flamsteed. Stephen Gray was an associate of Flamsteed’s and the mean spirited and evil Newton stopped Gray’s missive from being published. Really? C2 offer little or no evidence for their claim, no smoking gun and a closer examination of the facts lead to the conclusion that they are almost certainly wrong.

C2 claim that Newton was all-powerful as Royal Society President, which however was far from true at the beginning of his presidency. The presidency had from the founding of the society up to Newton’s first term had been a figurehead position with the real power residing with the secretary. Newton was the first hands-on president but Sloane did not role over and surrender his power overnight. In fact it wasn’t until 1713 that Newton finally managed to remove Sloane and become the absolute monarch, as which he is often portrayed. Secondly the Philosophical Transactions were the province of the secretary not the president and any questions on editorial policy were the province of the society’s council and not the president. Newton by no means dominated the council in the period between 1704 and 1710. This is simply illustrated by the case of Francis Hauksbee.

It is not very clear where Hauksbee came from when he started to demonstrate experiments at the Royal Society. It is assumed that he was a protégé of Newton’s as he gave his first demonstration at the first meeting presided over by Newton. However when he applied for a permanent position as demonstrator a year later, whilst the Council praised him for his efforts to date they refused him the appointment. In fact although Hauksbee continued to demonstrate the experiments at the Society until his death in 1713 he was never official appointed to the post.

If anybody suppressed Gray’s early electrical missive then the most likely candidate was Sloane and not Newton. Why Sloane should choose to do so is not clear. John Heilbron, a leading historian of electricity, thinks Sloane passed the letter on to Hauksbee for evaluation and that he chose to suppress the efforts of a rival. We’ll probably never know.

There is more circumstantial evidence, which suggests that a Newtonian campaign against Gray is rubbish. Around 1711 Gray’s health had degenerated to a point where he could no longer work as a dyer and he turned to his Royal Society friends for assistance. We have a letter from Brook Taylor to John Keill concerning their attempts to persuade Gray to accept Henry Hunt’s position as assistant demonstrator at the Royal Society after the latters death. Gray turned down the offer on grounds of humility but what is of interest here is that both Keill and Taylor are hard-core Newtonian acolytes. If Isaac was conducting an anti-Gray campaign they would never have tried to persuade Gray to accept a position at the Society. Following this incidence it appears that Gray spent several years in London living in the house of John Desagulier and working as his assistant during experimental demonstrations. Again Desagulier was a hard-core Newtonian appointed as Royal Society demonstrator as successor to Hauksbee. Far from persecuting Gray the Newtonians did everything in their power to help him.

Gray’s claim to fame came late in life after the death of Newton. In 1731, having taken up his electrical investigations again he discovered electrical conductivity. C2,in their usual style, claim that histories of electricity do not give credit to Gray for his achievements. Again this is not true. Already in the eighteenth century Joseph Priestley in his The History and Present State of Electricity from 1776 gives a complete description of Gray’s contributions. I haven’t consulted all the modern sources but John Heilbron’s Elements of Early Modern Physics, the standard work on the subject, gives Gray all the credit he deserves.

As far as I can see the Clarks’ book is a cheap sensationalist attempt to sell their very poor historical research by defaming Newton.


Filed under Newton

9 responses to “Christmas Trilogy 2012 Part I: Did Isaac really victimise Stephen?

  1. Pingback: Christmas Trilogy 2012 Part I: Did Isaac really victimise Stephen? | Whewell's Ghost

  2. simplicio

    The Clarke’s statement about George I are fine. A great-grandfather is a distant relative, England had to go back three generations to find a branch of the Royal family that was both living and acceptable as a monarch.

    Saying Mary and Anne were also both great grandchildren of James I is irrelevant. Their closest relative who was a Stuart Monarch was their father, James II. That they also had more distant family connections that were also monarchs doesn’t make them more “distantly related” to the monarchy.

  3. In the English language a great grand child is not “a very distant relative”!

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