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Newton, Isaac

1. Dates
Born: Woolsthorp, seven miles south of Grantham, Lincolnshire, 25 Dec. 1642
Died: London, 20 March 1727
Dateinfo: Dates Certain
Lifespan: 85 2Father: Agr Isaac Newton père was a yeoman farmer, who might perhaps be called gentry since he was the lord of a minor manor. The background of the family was yeoman, however, and Isaac the father could not read or write. He died before his only son was born. Newton never lived with his stepfather, the Rev. Barnabas Smith, and he hated Smith. Clearly Newton was reared in properous circumstances.
2. Father
3. Nationality
Birth: English
Career: English
Death: English
4. Education
Schooling: Cambridge, M.A.
Newton matriculated in Cambridge in 1661. B.A. 1665. M.A. 1668.
5. Religion
Affiliation: Anglican, Heterodox
Newton was born into the Anglican church and publicly conformed to it. At about thirty, he convinced himself that Trinitarianism was a fraud and that Arianism was the true form of primitive Christianity. Newton held these views, very privately, until the end of his life. On his death bed he refused to receive the sacrament of the Anglican church.
6. Scientific Disciplines
Primary: Mathematics, Mechanics, Optics
Subordinate: Physics, Natural Philosophy, Alchemy
There is no need to list anything to justify the three primary disciplines or physics. Newton always considered himself a natural philosopher, and the central strand of his scientific development consisted of his speculations on the nature of physical reality, speculations that led him away from the reigning mechanical philosophy and to a major modification of it that asserted the existence of forces acting at a distance.
Newton's long investigation of alchemy is well established from his surviving manuscripts. If the catalogue had room, the discipline of chemistry ought also to be included. In Newton's own career, alchemy clearly overweighed chemistry.
7. Means of Support
Primary: Academia, Personal Means, Government
Newton was elected a Fellow of Trinity College in 1667 and remained one until he resigned the fellowship in 1701. The fellowship produced about £50-£60 per annum.
He was appointed Lucasian Professor of Mathematics in 1669, with an income of about £100. He retained the chair until he resigned it in 1701.
Although it is difficult wholly to decypher his personal estate, he was the heir to his father's property at Woolsthorpe, and his stepfather added a property as part of the marriage settlement. It appears that Newton had income of about £150 from the estate. What is not clear is the point at which he received it--was it at the time of his majority (for he was his father's heir), or was it at the time of his mother's death? Note that his stepfather, who died when Newton was eleven, was a very wealthy man, so that his mother had an extensive estate after Smith's death.
Newton was appointed Warden of the Mint (salary £500) in 1696. He moved then from Cambridge to London, where he lived for more than thirty years. In 1699 he became Master, a position he held until his death. The income from this position (which had a base salary of £400) varied according to the amount of money coined, but averaged about £2000.
Newton died quite a wealthy man.
8. Patronage
Types: Academic, Scientist, Government Official, Court Official
It is a basic fact about Newton, which sets him off from most of the scientists of the age, that he stood fairly resolutely aside from the scramble for patronage. His personal estate, which always insured his survival, may be relevant here.
Nevertheless, there were points at which he, like everyone else, needed patrons, and he had them. First, in Cambridge. Someone had to have stood behind the election, first to a scholarship and then to a fellowship in Trinity, of an unconnected student who ignored the established curriculum. He was not in fact wholly unconnected. Humphrey Babington, one of the Senior Fellows in Trinity, was the brother of the woman with whom Newton lodged while a student in grammar school in Grantham. Although this is not established beyond doubt, it appears probable that Babington stood behind Newton's appointments in Trinity.
Although it is again not established beyond possible doubt, it appears virtually certain that Isaac Barrow arranged for Newton to succeed him as Lucasian Professor. And it is hightly likely that it was Barrow, who was then Master of Trinity, who arranged for the royal dispensation that freed Newton from the necessity of ordination in 1675 and made possible his continuation in Cambridge.
Charles Montague, a veryk prominent member of the Whig junto, arranged Newton's appointment to the Mint in 1696, and later his knighthood. I am listing him as governmental official.
In the second and third decades of the 18th century, Newton had a close relation with Princess Caroline, whom he called his "particular friend," and (more distantly) her husband, who became George II. There is no evidence of which I am aware of material favors that Newton received, but I am listing this nevertheless as courtly patronage.
9. Technological Involvement
Types: Instruments, Applied Mathematics, Navigation, Metallurgy
In addition to his reflecting telescope, Newton devised an improved sextant in 1699, and a huge composite burning glass in 1704.
In 1670 he offered a series for the area under a circle to help a computer, and later he developed his method of interpolation for the same purpose.
Beginning in 1714 he served on the government's Board of Longitude.
Newton experimented with different alloys, looking for the best reflecting metal to use in his telescope.
10. Scientific Societies
Memberships: Royal Society, 1672; President, 1703 Académie Royal des Sciences, 1699, Foreign Associate.
There is abundant evidence that Newton was acquainted with clandestine circles of alchemists from whom he received alchemical manuscripts.
He corresponded with Boyle, Locke, Fatio, Halley, Gregory, and others. There is a full edition of his correspondence.
One should mention here his quarrels with Hooke and Flamsteed, and especially the bruising priority dispute with Leibniz.
  1. Richard S. Westfall, Never at Rest, (Cambridge, 1980). I have drawn up this sketch by skimming through my biography to remind myself of details. In writing the biography, I consulted all of the existing literature on Newton, of course, and references to the rest of the literature can be found in the bibliography and notes in Never at Rest.
Compiled by:
Richard S. Westfall
Department of History and Philosophy of Science
Indiana University

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©1995 Al Van Helden
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