Isaac Newton - A great genius

It was just a year after the death of Galileo, that an infant came into the world who was christened Isaac Newton. Even the great fame of Galileo himself must be relegated to a second place in comparison with that of the philosopher who first expounded the true theory of the universe.

Isaac Newton was born on the 25th of December (old style), 1642, at Woolsthorpe, in Lincolnshire, about a half-mile from Colsterworth, and eight miles south of Grantham. His father, Mr. Isaac Newton, had died a few months after his marriage to Harriet Ayscough, the daughter of Mr. James Ayscough, of Market Overton, in Rutlandshire. The little Isaac was at first so excessively frail and weakly that his life was despaired of. The watchful mother, however, tended her delicate child with such success that he seems to have thriven better than might have been expected from the circumstances of his infancy, and he ultimately acquired a frame strong enough to outlast the ordinary span of human life.

For three years they continued to live at Woolsthorpe, the widow's means of livelihood being supplemented by the income from another small estate at Sewstern, in a neighbouring part of Leicestershire.
In 1645, Mrs. Newton took as a second husband the Rev. Barnabas Smith, and on moving to her new home, about a mile from Woolsthorpe, she entrusted little Isaac to her mother, Mrs. Ayscough. In due time we find that the boy was sent to the public school at Grantham, the name of the master being Stokes. For the purpose of being near his work, the embryo philosopher was boarded at the house of Mr. Clark, an apothecary at Grantham. We learn from Newton himself that at first he had a very low place in the class lists of the school, and was by no means one of those model school-boys who find favour in the eyes of the school-master by attention to Latin grammar. Isaac's first incentive to diligent study seems to have been derived from the circumstance that he was severely kicked by one of the boys who was above him in the class. This indignity had the effect of stimulating young Newton's activity to such an extent that he not only attained the desired object of passing over the head of the boy who had maltreated him, but continued to rise until he became the head of the school.

The play-hours of the great philosopher were devoted to pursuits very different from those of most school-boys. His chief amusement was found in making mechanical toys and various ingenious contrivances. He watched day by day with great interest the workmen engaged in constructing a windmill in the neighbourhood of the school, the result of which was that the boy made a working model of the windmill and of its machinery, which seems to have been much admired, as indicating his aptitude for mechanics. We are told that Isaac also indulged in somewhat higher flights of mechanical enterprise. He constructed a carriage, the wheels of which were to be driven by the hands of the occupant, while the first philosophical instrument he made was a clock, which was actuated by water. He also devoted much attention to the construction of paper kites, and his skill in this respect was highly appreciated by his schoolfellows. Like a true philosopher, even at this stage he experimented on the best methods of attaching the string, and on the proportions which the tail ought to have. He also made lanthorns of paper to provide himself with light as he walked to school in the dark winter mornings.

The only love affair in Newton's life appears to have commenced while he was still of tender years. The incidents are thus described in Brewster's "Life of Newton," a work to which I am much indebted in this chapter. "In the house where he lodged there were some female inmates, in whose company he appears to have taken much pleasure. One of these, a Miss Storey, sister to Dr. Storey, a physician at Buckminster, near Colsterworth, was two or three years younger than Newton and to great personal attractions she seems to have added more than the usual allotment of female talent. The society of this young lady and her companions was always preferred to that of his own school-fellows, and it was one of his most agreeable occupations to construct for them little tables and cupboards, and other utensils for holding their dolls and their trinkets. He had lived nearly six years in the same house with Miss Storey, and there is reason to believe that their youthful friendship gradually rose to a higher passion; but the smallness of her portion, and the inadequacy of his own fortune, appear to have prevented the consummation of their happiness.

Miss Storey was afterwards twice married, and under the name of Mrs. Vincent, Dr. Stukeley visited her at Grantham in 1727, at the age of eighty-two, and obtained from her many particulars respecting the early history of our author. Newton's esteem for her continued unabated during his life. He regularly visited her when he went to Lincolnshire, and never failed to relieve her from little pecuniary difficulties which seem to have beset her family."
The schoolboy at Grantham was only fourteen years of age when his mother became a widow for the second time. She then returned to the old family home at Woolsthorpe, bringing with her the three children of her second marriage. Her means appear to have been somewhat scanty, and it was consequently thought necessary to recall Isaac from the school. His recently-born industry had been such that he had already made good progress in his studies, and his mother hoped that he would now lay aside his books, and those silent meditations to which, even at this early age, he had become addicted. It was expected that, instead of such pursuits, which were deemed quite useless, the boy would enter busily into the duties of the farm and the details of a country life. But before long it became manifest that the study of nature and the pursuit of knowledge had such a fascination for the youth that he could give little attention to aught else. It was plain that he would make but an indifferent farmer. He greatly preferred experimenting on his water-wheels to looking after labourers, while he found that working at mathematics behind a hedge was much more interesting than chaffering about the price of bullocks in the market place. Fortunately for humanity his mother, like a wise woman, determined to let her boy's genius have the scope which it required. He was accordingly sent back to Grantham school, with the object of being trained in the knowledge which would fit him for entering the University of Cambridge.

It was the 5th of June, 1660, when Isaac Newton, a youth of eighteen, was enrolled as an undergraduate of Trinity College, Cambridge. Little did those who sent him there dream that this boy was destined to be the most illustrious student who ever entered the portals of that great seat of learning. Little could the youth himself have foreseen that the rooms near the gateway which he occupied would acquire a celebrity from the fact that he dwelt in them, or that the ante-chapel of his college was in good time to be adorned by that noble statue, which is regarded as one of the chief art treasures of Cambridge University, both on account of its intrinsic beauty and the fact that it commemorates the fame of her most distinguished alumnus, Isaac Newton, the immortal astronomer. Indeed, his advent at the University seemed to have been by no means auspicious or brilliant. His birth was, as we have seen, comparatively obscure, and though he had already given indication of his capacity for reflecting on philosophical matters, yet he seems to have been but ill-equipped with the routine knowledge which youths are generally expected to take with them to the Universities.

From the outset of his college career, Newton's attention seems to have been mainly directed to mathematics. Here he began to give evidence of that marvellous insight into the deep secrets of nature which more than a century later led so dispassionate a judge as Laplace to pronounce Newton's immortal work as pre-eminent above all the productions of the human intellect. But though Newton was one of the very greatest mathematicians that ever lived, he was never a mathematician for the mere sake of mathematics. He employed his mathematics as an instrument for discovering the laws of nature. His industry and genius soon brought him under the notice of the University authorities. It is stated in the University records that he obtained a Scholarship in 1664. Two years later we find that Newton, as well as many residents in the University, had to leave Cambridge temporarily on account of the breaking out of the plague.

The philosopher retired for a season to his old home at Woolsthorpe, and there he remained until he was appointed a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1667. From this time onwards, Newton's reputation as a mathematician and as a natural philosopher steadily advanced, so that in 1669, while still but twenty-seven years of age, he was appointed to the distinguished position of Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge. Here he found the opportunity to continue and develop that marvellous career of discovery which formed his life's work.
The earliest of Newton's great achievements in natural philosophy was his detection of the composite character of light. That a beam of ordinary sunlight is, in fact, a mixture of a very great number of different-coloured lights, is a doctrine now familiar to every one who has the slightest education in physical science. We must, however, remember that this discovery was really a tremendous advance in knowledge at the time when Newton announced it.
In 1703 Newton, whose world wide fame was now established, was elected President of the Royal Society. Year after year he was re-elected to this distinguished position, and his tenure, which lasted twenty-five years, only terminated with his life. It was in discharge of his duties as President of the Royal Society that Newton was brought into contact with Prince George of Denmark.
April 15th, 1705, the honour of knighthood was conferred upon the discoverer of gravitation.
Urged by illustrious friends, who sought the promotion of knowledge, Newton gave his attention to the publication of a new edition of the "Principia." His duties at the Mint, however, added to the supreme duty of carrying on his original investigations, left him but little time for the more ordinary task of the revision. He was accordingly induced to associate with himself for this purpose a distinguished young mathematician, Roger Coates, a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, who had recently been appointed Plumian Professor of Astronomy. On July 27th, 1713, Newton, by this time a favourite at Court, waited on the Queen, and presented her with a copy of the new edition of the "Principia."
Throughout his life Newton appears to have been greatly interested in theological studies, and he specially devoted his attention to the subject of prophecy. He left behind him a manuscript on the prophecies of Daniel and the Apocalypse of St. John, and he also wrote various theological papers. Many other subjects had from time to time engaged his attention. He studied the laws of heat; he experimented in pursuit of the dreams of the Alchymist; while the philosopher who had revealed the mechanism of the heavens found occasional relaxation in trying to interpret hieroglyphics. In the last few years of his life he bore with fortitude a painful ailment, and on Monday, March 20th, 1727, he died in the eighty-fifth year of his age. On Tuesday, March 28th, he was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Though Newton lived long enough to receive the honour that his astonishing discoveries so justly merited, and though for many years of his life his renown was much greater than that of any of his contemporaries, yet it is not too much to say that, in the years which have since elapsed, Newton's fame has been ever steadily advancing, so that it never stood higher than it does at this moment.
We hardly know whether to admire more the sublime discoveries at which he arrived, or the extraordinary character of the intellectual processes by which those discoveries were reached. Viewed from either standpoint, Newton's "Principia" is incomparably the greatest work on science that has ever yet been produced.
Reference : Great Astronomers by R. S. Ball


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