The tale of Isaac Newton and the apple is, along with Archimedes’ bath time Eureka-ejaculation and Galileo defiantly mumbling ‘but it moves’ whilst capitulating before the Inquisition, is one of the most widely spread and well known stories in the history of science. Visitors to his place of birth in Woolsthorpe get to see a tree from which the infamous apple is said to have fallen, inspiring the youthful Isaac to discover the law of gravity.
Reputed descendants of the tree exist in various places, including Trinity College Cambridge, and apple pips from the Woolsthorpe tree was taken up to the International Space Station for an experiment by the ‘first’ British ISS crew member, Tim Peake. Peake’s overalls also feature a Principia patch displaying the apple in fall.
All of this is well and good but it leads automatically to the question, is the tale of Isaac and the apple a real story or is it just a myth? The answer is that it is both.
Modern historians of Early Modern science tend to contemptuously dismiss the whole story as a myth. One who vehemently rejects it is Patricia Fara, who is an expert on Newtonian mythology and legend building having researched and written the excellent book, Newton: The Making of Genius. In her Science: A Four Thousand Year History she has the following to say about the apple story:
More than any other scientific myth, Newton’s falling apple promotes the romantic notion that great geniuses make momentous discoveries suddenly and in isolation […] According to simplistic accounts of its [Principia’s] impact, Newton founded modern physics by introducing gravity and simultaneously implementing two major transformations in methodology: unification and mathematization. By drawing a parallel between an apple and the Moon, he linked an everyday event on Earth with the motion of the planets through the heavens, thus eliminating the older, Aristotelian division between the terrestrial and celestial realms.
Although Newton was undoubtedly a brilliant man, eulogies of a lone genius fail to match events. Like all innovators, he depended on the earlier work of Kepler, Galileo, Descartes and countless others […]
The apple story was virtually unknown before Byron’s time. [Fara opens the chapter with a Byron poem hailing Newton’s discovery of gravity by watching the apple fall].
Whilst I would agree with almost everything that Fara says, here I think she is, to quote Kepler, guilty of throwing out the baby with the bath water. But before I explain why I think this let us pass review of the myth that she is, in my opinion, quite rightly rejecting.
The standard simplistic version of the apple story has Newton sitting under the Woolsthorpe Manor apple tree on a balmy summer’s day meditation on mechanics when he observes an apple falling. Usually in this version the apple actually hits him on the head and in an instantaneous flash of genius he discovers the law of gravity.
This is of course, as Fara correctly points out, a complete load of rubbish. We know from Newton’s notebooks and from the draughts of Principia that the path from his first studies of mechanics, both terrestrial and celestial, to the finished published version of his masterpiece was a very long and winding one, with many cul-de-sacs, false turnings and diversions. It involved a long and very steep learning curve and an awful lot of very long, very tedious and very difficult mathematical calculations. To modify a famous cliché the genius of Principia and the theories that it contains was one pro cent inspiration and ninety-nine pro cent perspiration.
If all of this is true why do I accuse Fara of throwing out the baby with the bath water? I do so because although the simplistic story of the apple is a complete myth there really was a story of an apple told by Newton himself and in the real versions, which differ substantially from the myth, there is a core of truth about one step along that long and winding path.
Having quoted Fara I will now turn to, perhaps Newton’s greatest biographer, Richard Westfall. In his Never at Rest, Westfall of course addresses the apple story:
What then is one to make of the story of the apple? It is too well attested to be thrown out of court. In Conduitt’s version one of four independent ones, …
Westfall tells us that the story is in fact from Newton and he told to on at least four different occasions to four different people. The one Westfall quotes is from John Conduitt, who was Newton’s successor at the Royal Mint, married his niece and house keeper Catherine Barton and together with her provided Newton with care in his last years. The other versions are from the physician and antiquarian William Stukeley, who like Newton was from Lincolnshire and became his friend in the last decade of Newton’s life, the Huguenot mathematician Abraham DeMoivre, a convinced Newtonian and Robert Greene who had the story from Martin Folkes, vice-president of the Royal Society whilst Newton was president. There is also an account from Newton’s successor as Lucasian professor, William Whiston, that may or may not be independent. The account published by Newton’s first published biographer, Henry Pemberton, is definitely dependent on the accounts of DeMoivre and Whiston. The most well known account is that of Voltaire, which he published in his Letters Concerning the English Nation, London 1733 (Lettres philosophiques sur les Anglais, Rouen, 1734), and which he says he heard from Catherine Conduitt née Barton. As you can see there are a substantial number of sources for the story although DeMoivre’s account, which is very similar to Conduitt’s doesn’t actually mention the apple, so as Westfall says to dismiss it out of hand is being somewhat cavalier, as a historian.
To be fair to Fara she does quote Stukeley’s version before the dismissal that I quoted above, so why does she still dismiss the story. She doesn’t, she dismisses the myth, which has little in common with the story as related by the witnesses listed above. Before repeating the Conduitt version as quoted by Westfall we need a bit of background.
In 1666 Isaac, still an undergraduate, had, together with all his fellow students, been sent down from Cambridge because of an outbreak of the plague. He spent the time living in his mother’s house, the manor house in Woolsthorpe, teaching himself the basics of the modern terrestrial mechanics from the works of Descartes, Huygens and the Salisbury English translation of Galileo’s Dialogo. Although he came nowhere near the edifice that was the Principia, he did make quite remarkable progress for a self-taught twenty-four year old. It was at this point in his life that the incident with the apple took place. We can now consider Conduitt’s account:
In the year 1666 he retired again from Cambridge … to his mother in Lincolnshire & whilst he was musing in a garden it came to his thought that the power of gravity (wch brought an apple from the tree to the ground) was not limited to a certain distance from the earth but that this power must extend much further than was normally thought. Why not as high as the moon said he to himself & if so that must influence her motion & and perhaps retain her in her orbit, where-upon he fell to calculating what would be the effect of this supposition but being absent from books & taking common estimate in use among Geographers & our seamen before Norwood had measured the earth, that 60 English miles were contained in one degree latitude on the surface of the Earth his computation did not agree with his theory & inclined him to entertain a notion that together with the force of gravity there might be a mixture of that force wch the moon would have if it was carried along in a vortex…
As you can see the account presented here by Conduitt differs quite substantially from the myth. No tree, no apple on the head, no instantaneous discovery of the theory of gravity. What we have here is a young man who had been intensely studying the theory of forces, in particular forces acting on a body moving in a circle, applying what he had learnt to an everyday situation the falling apple and asking himself if those forces would also be applicable to the moon. What is of note here is the fact that his supposition didn’t work out. Based on the data he was using, which was inaccurate, his calculations showed that the forces acting on the apple and those acting on the moon where not the same! An interesting thought but it didn’t work out. Oh well, back to the drawing board. Also of note here is the reference to a vortex, revealing Newton to be a convinced Cartesian. By the time he finally wrote the Principia twenty years later he had turned against Descartes and in fact Book II of Principia is devoted to demolishing Descartes’ vortex theory.
In 1666 Newton dropped his study of mechanics for the meantime and moved onto optics, where his endeavours would prove more fruitful, leading to his discoveries on the nature of light and eventually to his first publication in 1672, as well as the construction of his reflecting telescope.
Over the next two decades Newton developed and extended his knowledge of mechanics, whilst also developing his mathematical skills so that when Halley came calling in 1684 to ask what form a planetary orbit would take under an inverse squared law of gravity, Newton was now in a position to give the correct answer. At Halley’s instigation Newton now turned that knowledge into a book, his Principia, which only took him the best part of three years to write! As can be seen even with this briefest of outlines there was definitely nothing instantaneous or miraculous about the creation of Newton’ masterpiece.
So have we said all that needs to be said about Newton and his apple, both the story and the myth? Well no. There still remains another objection that has been raised by historians, who would definitely like to chuck the baby out with the bath water. Although there are, as noted above, multiple sources for the apple-story all of them date from the last decade of Newton’s life, fifty years after the event. There is a strong suspicion that Newton, who was know to be intensely jealous of his priorities in all of his inventions and discoveries, made up the apple story to establish beyond all doubt that he and he alone deserved the credit for the discovery of universal gravitation. This suspicion cannot be simply dismissed as Newton has form in such falsification of his own history. As I have blogged on an earlier occasion, he definitely lied about having created Principia using the, from himself newly invented, calculus translating it back into conventional Euclidian geometry for publication. We will probably never know the final truth about the apple-story but I for one find it totally plausible and am prepared to give Isaac the benefit of the doubt and to say he really did take a step along the road to his theory of universal gravitation one summer afternoon in Woolsthorpe in the Year of Our Lord 1666.
 Patricia Fara, Newton: The Making of Genius, Columbia University Press, 2002
 Patricia Fara, Science: A Four Thousand Year History, ppb. OUP, 2010, pp. 164-165
 Richard S. Westfall, Never at Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton, ppb. CUP, 1980 p. 154