Christmas Trilogy 2017 Part 1: Isaac the Imperator

Isaac Newton came from a fairly humble although not poor background. His father was a yeoman farmer in Lincolnshire, who unfortunately died before he was born. A yeoman farmer owned his own land and in fact the Newton’s were the occupants of the manor house of Woolsthorpe-by-Colsterworth.

Woolsthorpe Manor, Woolsthorpe-by-Colsterworth, Lincolnshire, England. This house was the birthplace and the family home of Isaac Newton.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Destined to become a farmer until he displayed little aptitude for life on the land, his mother was persuaded by the local grammar school master to let him complete his education and he was duly dispatched off to Cambridge University in 1661. Although anything but poor, when Newton inherited the family estates they generated an income of £600 per annum, at a time when the Astronomer Royal received an income of £100 per annum, his mother enrolled him at Cambridge as a subsizar, that is a student who earned his tuition by working as a servant. I personally think this reflects the family’s puritan background rather than any meanness on the mother’s part.

In 1664 Newton received a scholarship at Trinity and in 1667 he became a fellow of the college. In 1669 he was appointed Lucasian professor of mathematics. Cambridge was in those days a small market town and a bit of a backwater. The university did not enjoy a good reputation and the Lucasian professorship even less of one. Newton lived in chambers in Trinity College and it was certainly anything but a life of luxury.

Trinity College Great Court
Source: Wikimedia Commons

There is an amusing anecdote about David Hilbert writing to the authorities of Trinity at the beginning of the twentieth century to complain about the fact that Godfrey Hardy, whom he regarded as one of the greatest living mathematicians, was living in what he regarded as a squalid room without running water or adequate heating. What Hilbert didn’t realise was that Hardy would never give up this room because it was the one that Newton had inhabited.

Newton remained an obscure and withdrawn Cambridge don until he presented the Royal Society with his reflecting telescope and published his first paper on optics in 1672. Although it established his reputation, Newton was anything but happy about the negative reactions to his work and withdrew even further into his shell. He only re-emerged in 1687 and then with a real bombshell his Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, which effectively established him overnight as Europe’s leading natural philosopher, even if several of his major competitors rejected his gravitational hypothesis of action at a distance.

Having gained fame as a natural philosopher Newton, seemingly having tired of the provinces, began to crave more worldly recognition and started to petition his friends to help him find some sort of appropriate position in London. His lobbying efforts were rewarded in 1696 when his friend and ex-student, Charles Montagu, 1st Earl of Halifax, had him appointed to the political sinecure, Warden of the Mint.

Newton was no longer a mere university professor but occupant of one of the most important political sinecures in London. He was also a close friend of Charles Montagu one of the most influential political figures in England. By the time Montagu fell from grace Newton was so well established that it had little effect on his own standing. Although Montagu’s political opponents tried to bribe him to give up his, now, Mastership of the Mint he remained steadfast and his fame was such that there was nothing they could do to remove him from office. They wanted to give the post to one of their own. Newton ruled the Mint with an iron hand like a despot and it was not only here that the humble Lincolnshire farm lad had given way to man of a completely different nature.

As a scholar, Newton held court in the fashionable London coffee houses, surrounded by his acolytes, for whom the term Newtonians was originally minted, handing out unpublished manuscripts to the favoured few for their perusal and edification. Here he was king of the roost and all of London’s intellectual society knew it.

He became President of the Royal Society in 1703 and here with time his new personality came to the fore. When he became president the society had for many years been served by absentee presidents, office holders in name only, and the power in the society lay not with the president but with the secretary. When Newton was elected president, Hans Sloane was secretary and had already been so for ten years and he was not about to give up his power to Newton. There then followed a power struggle, mostly behind closed doors, until Newton succeeded in gaining power in about 1610 1710, Sloane, defeated resigned from office in 1613 1713 but got his revenge by being elected president on Newton’s death. Now Newton let himself be almost literally enthroned as ruler of the Royal Society.

Isaac Newton’s portrait as Royal Society President Charles Jervas 1717
Source: Royal Society

The president of the society sat at table on a raised platform and on 20 January 1711 the following Order of the Council was made and read to the members at the next meeting.

That no Body Sit at the Table but the President at the head and the two Secretaries towards the lower end one on the one Side and the other Except Some very Honoured Stranger, at the discretion of the President.

When the society was first given its royal charter in 1660, although Charles II gave them no money he did give them an old royal mace as a symbol of their royal status. Newton established the custom that the mace was only displayed on the table when the president was in the chair. When Sloane became president his first act was to decree that the mace was to be displayed at all meetings, whether the president was present or not. Newton ruled over the meetings with the same iron hand with which he ruled over the Mint. Meeting were conducted solemnly with no chit chat or other disturbances as William Stukeley put it:

Indeed his presence created a natural awe in the assembly; they appear’d truly as a venerable consessus Naturae Consliariorum without any levity or indecorum.

Perhaps Newton’s view of himself in his London years in best reflected in his private habitat. Having lived the life of a bachelor scholar in college chambers for twenty odd years he now obtained a town house in London. He installed his niece Catherine Barton, who became a famous society beauty, as his housekeeper and lived the life of a London gentleman, albeit a fairly quiet one. However his personal furnishings seem to me to speak volumes about how he now viewed himself. When he died an inventory of his personal possessions was made for the purpose of valuation, as part of his testament. On the whole his household goods were ordinary enough with one notable exception. He possessed crimson draperies, a crimson mohair bed with crimson curtains, crimson hangings, a crimson settee. Crimson was the only colour mentioned in the inventory. He lived in an atmosphere of crimson. Crimson is of course the colour of emperors, of kings, of potentates and of cardinals. Did the good Isaac see himself as an imperator in his later life?


All the quotes in this post are taken from Richard S, Westfall’s excellent Newton biography Never at Rest.





Filed under History of Astronomy, History of Mathematics, History of Optics, History of Physics, History of science, Newton

5 responses to “Christmas Trilogy 2017 Part 1: Isaac the Imperator

  1. Interesting. Possible problem of dates above in the sentence “… There then followed a power struggle, mostly behind closed doors, until Newton succeeded in gaining power in about 1610, Sloane, defeated resigned from office in 1613 but got his revenge by being elected president on Newton’s death”? Shouldn’t it be 1710 and 1713?

  2. “In 1664 Newton received a scholarship at Trinity and in 1667 he became a fellow of the college.”

    Readers not familiar with the UK college system probably have no idea what “fellow of the college” means.

  3. A pet peeve of mine: the word “only” is used not only where it should be but also elsewhere. Consider the sentence “The baboon gave a bun to the bishop.” You can put “only” before or after any of these words, and the meaning changes.

    “He only re-emerged in 1687”

    He only re-emerged, he didn’t do anything else. Should be “He re-emerged only in 1687”.

    “Newton established the custom that the mace was only displayed on the table when the president was in the chair.”

    It was only displayed, it wasn’t used for anything else. Should be “Newton established the custom that the mace was displayed on the table only when the president was in the chair.”

    For the record, my other pet peeve is lack of hyphens in two-word adjectives.

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