Photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Isaac_Newton,_English_School,_1715-20.jpg / Public domain
Born: January 4, 1643
Born Place: Woolsthorpe Manor House, United Kingdom
Died: March 31, 1727
Death Place: Kensington
Education: Trinity College (1667–1668)
- Newtonian mechanics
- Universal gravitation
- Newton’s laws of motion
- Binomial series
- Newton’s method
- Natural philosophy
Sir Isaac Newton PRS (25 December 1642 – 20 March 1726/27) was an English mathematician, physicist, astronomer, theologian, and author (described in his own day as a “natural philosopher”) who is widely recognised as one of the most influential scientists of all time and as a key figure in the scientific revolution. His book Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy), first published in 1687, laid the foundations of classical mechanics. Newton also made seminal contributions to optics, and shares credit with Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz for developing the infinitesimal calculus.
In Principia, Newton formulated the laws of motion and universal gravitation that formed the dominant scientific viewpoint until it was superseded by the theory of relativity. Newton used his mathematical description of gravity to prove Kepler’s laws of planetary motion, account for tides, the trajectories of comets, the precession of the equinoxes and other phenomena, eradicating doubt about the Solar System’s heliocentricity. He demonstrated that the motion of objects on Earth and celestial bodies could be accounted for by the same principles. Newton’s inference that the Earth is an oblate spheroid was later confirmed by the geodetic measurements of Maupertuis, La Condamine, and others, convincing most European scientists of the superiority of Newtonian mechanics over earlier systems.
Newton built the first practical reflecting telescope and developed a sophisticated theory of colour based on the observation that a prism separates white light into the colours of the visible spectrum. His work on light was collected in his highly influential book Opticks, published in 1704. He also formulated an empirical law of cooling, made the first theoretical calculation of the speed of sound, and introduced the notion of a Newtonian fluid. In addition to his work on calculus, as a mathematician Newton contributed to the study of power series, generalised the binomial theorem to non-integer exponents, developed a method for approximating the roots of a function, and classified most of the cubic plane curves.
Newton was a fellow of Trinity College and the second Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge. He was a devout but unorthodox Christian who privately rejected the doctrine of the Trinity. Unusually for a member of the Cambridge faculty of the day, he refused to take holy orders in the Church of England. Beyond his work on the mathematical sciences, Newton dedicated much of his time to the study of alchemy and biblical chronology, but most of his work in those areas remained unpublished until long after his death. Politically and personally tied to the Whig party, Newton served two brief terms as Member of Parliament for the University of Cambridge, in 1689–90 and 1701–02. He was knighted by Queen Anne in 1705 and spent the last three decades of his life in London, serving as Warden (1696–1700) and Master (1700–1727) of the Royal Mint, as well as president of the Royal Society (1703–1727).
Isaac Newton was born (according to the Julian calendar, in use in England at the time) on Christmas Day, 25 December 1642 (NS 4 January 1643) “an hour or two after midnight”, at Woolsthorpe Manor in Woolsthorpe-by-Colsterworth, a hamlet in the county of Lincolnshire. His father, also named Isaac Newton, had died three months before. Born prematurely, Newton was a small child; his mother Hannah Ayscough reportedly said that he could have fit inside a quart mug. When Newton was three, his mother remarried and went to live with her new husband, the Reverend Barnabas Smith, leaving her son in the care of his maternal grandmother, Margery Ayscough (née Blythe). Newton disliked his stepfather and maintained some enmity towards his mother for marrying him, as revealed by this entry in a list of sins committed up to the age of “Threatening my father and mother Smith to burn them and the house over them.” Newton’s mother had three children (Mary, Benjamin and Hannah) from her second marriage.
From the age of about twelve until he was seventeen, Newton was educated at The King’s School, Grantham, which taught Latin and Greek and probably imparted a significant foundation of mathematics. He was removed from school and returned to Woolsthorpe-by-Colsterworth by October 1659. His mother, widowed for the second time, attempted to make him a farmer, an occupation he hated. Henry Stokes, master at The King’s School, persuaded his mother to send him back to school. Motivated partly by a desire for revenge against a schoolyard bully, he became the top-ranked student, distinguishing himself mainly by building sundials and models of windmills.
In June 1661, he was admitted to Trinity College, Cambridge, on the recommendation of his uncle Rev William Ayscough, who had studied there. He started as a subsizar—paying his way by performing valet’s duties—until he was awarded a scholarship in 1664, guaranteeing him four more years until he could get his MA. At that time, the college’s teachings were based on those of Aristotle, whom Newton supplemented with modern philosophers such as Descartes, and astronomers such as Galileo and Thomas Street, through whom he learned of Kepler’s work. He set down in his notebook a series of “Quaestiones” about mechanical philosophy as he found it. In 1665, he discovered the generalised binomial theorem and began to develop a mathematical theory that later became calculus. Soon after Newton had obtained his BA degree in August 1665, the university temporarily closed as a precaution against the Great Plague. Although he had been undistinguished as a Cambridge student, Newton’s private studies at his home in Woolsthorpe over the subsequent two years saw the development of his theories on calculus, optics, and the law of gravitation.
In April 1667, he returned to Cambridge and in October was elected as a fellow of Trinity. Fellows were required to become ordained priests, although this was not enforced in the restoration years and an assertion of conformity to the Church of England was sufficient. However, by 1675 the issue could not be avoided and by then his unconventional views stood in the way. Nevertheless, Newton managed to avoid it by means of special permission from Charles II.
His studies had impressed the Lucasian professor Isaac Barrow, who was more anxious to develop his own religious and administrative potential (he became master of Trinity two years later); in 1669 Newton succeeded him, only one year after receiving his MA. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) in 1672.
Newton died in his sleep in London on 20 March 1727 (OS 20 March 1726; NS 31 March 1727). His body was buried in Westminster Abbey. Voltaire may have been present at his funeral. A bachelor, he had divested much of his estate to relatives during his last years, and died intestate. His papers went to John Conduitt and Catherine Barton. After his death, Newton’s hair was examined and found to contain mercury, probably resulting from his alchemical pursuits. Mercury poisoning could explain Newton’s eccentricity in late life.
Published in his lifetime
- De analysi per aequationes numero terminorum infinitas (1669, published 1711)
- Of Natures Obvious Laws & Processes in Vegetation (unpublished, c. 1671–75)
- De motu corporum in gyrum (1684)
- Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687)
- Scala graduum Caloris. Calorum Descriptiones & signa (1701)
- Opticks (1704)
- Reports as Master of the Mint (1701–1725)
- Arithmetica Universalis (1707)
- De mundi systemate (The System of the World) (1728)
- Optical Lectures (1728)
- The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended (1728)
- Observations on Daniel and The Apocalypse of St. John (1733)
- Method of Fluxions (1671, published 1736)
- An Historical Account of Two Notable Corruptions of Scripture (1754)