Christmas Trilogy 2019 Part I: Would the real Mr Newton please stand up?

Probably the more wide spread and popular image of Isaac Newton is of him discovering the law of gravity after being hit on the head by a falling apple.


For many generations of school kids throughout the world the name Newton is associated with his laws of motion and that law of gravity, often with unpleasant thoughts of having to solve physics home work problem involving them. For many Newton is the ‘father of modern science’ or the ‘father of physics’ or in some way synonymous with the scientific revolution. Also for those worldwide, generations of school kids he was the inventor/discoverer of the bane of mathematics the calculus. In reality, as well as his most well known achievements in mathematics, astronomy and physics, Newton took a lively interest in a surprising range of topics and, never a dabbler, he invested the full power of his vast intellect in whatever he undertook to investigate.


Portrait of Newton by Godfrey Kneller, 1689 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Born in Woolsthorpe Manor on 25 December 1642, the son of a yeoman farmer, who died before he was born, Newton grew up in a strongly puritan environment and remained deeply religious throughout his entire, very long life. He devoted an immense amount of time and energy to studying the Bible that tradition claims he could recite off by heart. He would learn both Greek and Hebrew in order to further his theological studies. His religious views were anything but orthodox and he was in fact probably an Arian i.e. he denied the concept of the Trinity believing in a Unitarian concept of God instead. He would have normally been required to take holy orders in order to become a professor at Cambridge and even considered leaving the university because he was not prepared to do so. Through the assistance of Isaac Barrow he was granted a special dispensation and was thus able to accept the Lucasian Chair without having to take holy orders. Although he wrote many papers on his religious beliefs, including his belief that the Catholic Church had corrupted the text of the Bible in order to justify their belief in the Holy Trinity, he largely kept his heterodox religious views to himself, sharing them only with selected sympathetic correspondents.

His religious views played a central role in his scientific endeavours as he believed that he was uncovering God’s plan of the universe. He went further than this in that he believed that he, and he alone, had been chosen by God to reveal that plan. He was also a prisca theologian, who believed that Adam and the early generations of humanity had had perfect knowledge of God’s creation and that this knowledge had been lost down through the succeeding generations. He was not discovering the plans of God’s creation but rediscovering them.

Newton was also, like many others in the High Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period, a millennialist that is he believed in a second coming and the end of the world. This led to the second of his great intellectual passions, history. Newton was a Bible chronologist, who thought that if he could accurately determine the date of creation and thus the current age of the Earth then he could also determine the time of the second coming. In order to do this he devoted a lot to the study of history in order to establish the time and durations of the great civilisations based, of course, around an analysis of the Old Testament as a historical source. He also tried, as an astronomer, to tie historical descriptions of astronomical phenomena, eclipses etc., to mathematically determined dates of those phenomena. This led other chronologists to eagerly await access to Newton’s chronological writings after his death hoping that the great astronomer mathematician would provide solid scientific evidence for his historical dating scheme. On the whole those hopes were disappointed when Newton’s chronological manuscripts did finally see the light of day.

Newton’s prisca theological beliefs also led to another of his better-known intellectual activities his alchemical investigations. He believed that alchemy was the oldest of all the sciences and that if he could unravel the secrets of this arcane discipline then it would bring him closer to knowledge of God’s creation plan. You will often see the highly incorrect assertion that the scientist Newton only turned to the occult alchemy in his dotage, after his scientific creativity had been drained; this is far from the truth. Newton began his alchemical studies in about 1666 at the height of his intellectual powers. He built a hut in the gardens of Trinity College, which served as his laboratory and devoted the winter months of the next thirty years to the serious study of alchemy. He read and annotated hundreds of alchemical manuscripts, carried out numerous experiments and wrote his own thoughts on the subject none of which he ever published. On interesting side note to this intensive engagement is that he used the knowledge of chemical processes that he had won to develop new and better methods of assaying when he was running the Royal Mint later in life.

The years that Newton devoted to the study of alchemy were also the years that he devoted to the study of mathematics, physics and astronomy. Those people who reached a high enough level in mathematics in their own education usually know than Newton is credited with being the co-creator, together with Leibniz, of the calculus. What most people don’t realise is just how vast Newton’s output of creative mathematics was. The edited edition of his collected mathematical papers runs to eight very thick, large format volumes covering a very wide range of mathematical topics. His scientific crowning glory is, of course, his Principia Mathematica (1687) combining, as it does a definitive, uniform presentation of the physical mechanics that had been developed piecemeal over the preceding two centuries adding much that was new in the process, as well as a complete consistent heliocentric model of the solar system. With this one book he established himself as Europe’s number one physicist and number one astronomer. He second masterpiece was his Opticks, created and written largely before the mathematics, mechanics and astronomy but first published, due to negative reactions to his first papers on the subject, in 1704. It was of course in this period that Newton was also Lucasian Professor of mathematics at Cambridge University. This however was not that much of a burden, as Newton famously had virtually no students attending his lectures. Mathematics was not particularly popular at English universities during the seventeenth century.

In 1696 Newton left the world of academia, and to some extent his scientific investigations, to start a completely new career as a government servant, first as warden then later as comptroller of the Royal Mint in London. He obtained this appointment through the services of one of his former students, Charles Montagu, later 1st Earl of Halifax, one of the most powerful Whig politicians and for a time Chancellor of the Exchequer. Newton’s association with Montagu illustrates another aspect of his life that of politician. Newton was a member of the Whig Party, who sat as an MP for Cambridge University, the universities were their own parliamentary constituencies, at the convention to settle the revolution of 1689. This was however one activity where Newton remained very passive and did nothing to distinguish himself. In 1705 Montagu persuaded him to stand again and even arranged for him to be knightedto increase his chances of election but he lost the election and thus ended his active political career.

The job at the Royal Mint, which Newton desired because he thought being a mere university professor did not fit his status as a leading European intellectual, was actually normally considered a political sinecure, i.e. the office holder was not actually expected to do anything, just hold the title and collect the pay. Others would actually do the work. Newton was not a man for sinecures. He plunged right in taking over the day-to-day running of the mint. He personally supervised the recoining of the nation, a monstrous task, which Montague had introduced as a measure to combat the debasement of the English currency. Newton applied his scientific mind to modernising the Mint, introducing as indicated above, new methods of chemically assaying metals. One of the responsibilities of the Warden of the Mint was to track down and bring to trial coiners, i.e. those who forged coin of the realm, and clippers, i.e. those who clipped are shaved metal of the edges of coins. The milling of the edges of coins was introduced in Newton’s times to make life more difficult for clippers. Normally a Warden would employ others to track down these criminals, Newton took on the job himself working as a sort of seventeenth century gumshoe[1]. He was very much a hands on boss and remained so until late in his life, when he began to hand over the reigns to John Conduit, the husband of his niece and housekeeper, Catherine Barton.

From 1704 onwards until his death, he was also President of the Royal Society, which he ruled in a very autocratic manner. Once again he was not prepared to be merely some sort of figurehead but was deeply engaged in shaping the society’s profile and business. In this role he also became a tourist attraction, foreign visitors to London attending meetings of the Royal Society in order to witness Sir Isaac Newton Europe’s greatest, living natural philosopher.

Although the term natural philosopher signifies what we would now call a scientist, Newton was also a philosopher in the true sense. Although, unlike Leibniz, he didn’t publish separate philosophical texts, his major works, the Principia Mathematica and the Opticks, both contain a lot of serious thoughts on the philosophy and methodology of science. He was also very much pulling the strings, as the puppet master, in the philosophical debate about Newton’s natural philosophy between Leibniz and Samuel Clarke, who acted as Newton’s mouth piece. Newton’s philosophical approach to science influenced, not necessarily positively, John Locke, David Hume and Immanuel Kant amongst others.

Last but perhaps by no means least there is an aspect to Newton that often gets overlooked, Newton the family man. This might seem like a contradiction in terms given that Newton lost his father before he was born and was abandoned as a small child by his mother, to be looked after by relatives, when she remarried. Newton, also, never married and had no children. However, he inherited the family’s not insubstantial holdings in Lincolnshire, they generated a yearly income of six hundred pounds at a time when the annual salary of the Astronomer Royal was one hundred pounds per annum. Newton brought his niece Catherine Barton to London to be his housekeeper and by no means treated her as a servant but as the lady of the house, who enjoyed the status of a lady in London’s high society. Newton also managed the family holdings personally and took good care of those members of his extended family living in Lincolnshire. Newton has acquired a historical reputation for being cantankerous and unfriendly but towards his extended family but also towards his scientific acolytes, the first so-called Newtonians, he could be and often was warm and generous.

Although the above is at best an inadequate sketch I hope I have made it clear that the real Isaac Newton was much more than a caricature of a scientist with an apple falling on his head. He was a theologian, historian, Bible chronologist, alchemist, mathematician, physicist, astronomer, public servant, detective, politician, society president, philosopher, farm manager and family man quite a lot for any individual.

[1] For an excellent account of this activity read Thomas Levenson’s Newton and the Counterfeiter, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009



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2 responses to “Christmas Trilogy 2019 Part I: Would the real Mr Newton please stand up?

  1. Thony, excellent read as usual. Little tidbit: Newton did not become comptroller, but rather Master (“and Worker”) of the Royal Mint, in 1699. Keep up the good work!

    • Thanks for the compliment and the corrections. I must admit trying to write a 2000 word biographical sketch on Newton, I feared you would turn up in the comments saying ‘what a load of crap!’ I actually realised yesterday that I had Newton the instrument maker completely forgotten. Will correct later today.

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